Sunday, December 18, 2011

Heard From the Other Room

I swear I heard this dialog between my large terrier mix, Leo,  and my cockapoo, reference to Old  Matilda.

Bernie: The cat was stalking you, for God's sake!
Matilda: Look at the puppy.
Bernie: She's a frickin' cat.
Leo: She's just a kitten, let her play.
Bernie: It's against nature. You let that thing start stalking us and she'll be on us in our sleep, ripping our throats and tearing the flesh from our bones. I say we start a pack hunt.
Leo: I'm not pack hunting a kitten. Go smell the kitchen floor. It will relax you.
Bernie: You smell the freakin' kitchen floor. I'm going after the freakin' cat!
Matilda: Look at the puppy.
Bernie: For God's sake, it's a cat! What the hell. Someone call the doggie metalodge.


Sunday, October 09, 2011

Is There A Cultural Bias in Ghost Hunting?

I went to Conclave yesterday and attended a panel on ghost-hunting. Listening to the two panelists, something occurred to me. I was struck by how most of the examples of hauntings occurred in settings which were not in areas with heavy Latino or African-American populations. Also, I was struck by how many of the identified "hauntings" occured in either wealthy or rural areas, or sites with ancient histories---old museums, old libraries, old mansions,etc.

What about some house in a depressed area in Chicago? What about a trailer park somewhere in Austin? What about an apartment in a low income housing complex in St. Louis?

It gave me pause.

Having lived most of my life in Detroit, and having done research on the metaphysical within the city, I know people who have either claimed hauntings, or beliefs in things which can be considered paranormal. Some white, some people of color, some poor, some well-to-do.

So, why, I ask, is ghost-hunting so "white bread?" At least that's my perception. I don't think I've ever seen the crew from the "Ghost Hunters" heading into a house in a depressed neighborhood. Sure, they've gone to a building in a rough area, but they were usually there to go to an old theater or factory owned by someone outside the community.

I posed these observations to the panelists. One responded that most ghost hunting shows were appealing to a certain demographic, and were therefore focusing on their pre-conceptions of what a haunting should look like. Or, it was offered, perhaps different cultures are less likely to be receptive to outsiders.

Maybe. But I think the door is left wide open for other conclusions.

Friday, September 02, 2011

All Writers Are Mentalists

When I was much younger, I was fascinated by cold-readings. I didn't want to be Watson, I wanted to be Sherlock Holmes. The idea of being able to study someone and make deductions from dress, mannerisms, speech, etc...was irresistible. In fact, I became quite good at it. And then I saw how it could be taken a step further; using that information to actually influence someone else. Suggestion is a powerful thing.

I suppose writers do this to a degree. We study people, try to imprint their behavior and language in our mind, and then make deductions about their motivations or inner turmoil. And we transfer this to paper, inviting the reader to follow our thought process, inviting them to arrive at the same conclusions which we did, and sometimes we invite them to form their own from the evidence we present. And like the onstage mentalist, we try our hand at suggestion, re-directing the reader with description, or pacing, or minor characters, as we are manipulating their emotions and laying subliminal clues through foreshadowing so that when something is revealed there is a satisfactory emotional impact.

All writers--all good ones--are mentalists.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Coming October...

I grew up with The Twilight Zone, One Step Beyond, and The Outer Limits. These anthology shows gave us classic stories from the likes of Richard Matheson, Ray Bradbury, Charles Beaumont, and Harlan Ellison. The writing was often crisp and the stories bits of carefully crafted heaven. The episodes didn't always work, and not all anthologies gave us memorable stories. I think Tales of the Crypt was uneven, and Hammer's House of Horror was too often derivative.

Still, I love horror and science fiction anthologies and look forward to FX's upcoming series American Horror Story. I say this even though it is created by the people who gave us Glee, and even though early word of it is that the show goes for shocks over tone and content. So enjoy the trailers, which are well done, and let me know what you think. Maybe Rod Serling is no longer with us, but perhaps this new series can evolve into something worthy of his memory.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Trailers From Hell

If you like the filmgoing experience, then odds are you like trailers for motion pictures. There's nothing like the little excitement you get at seeing a peek of some eagerly awaited motion picture. However, watching teasers and trailers, it's easy to forget that they are in some way an art form at once exquisite and kitschy, and for some of us a spark igniting tremendous memories.

Joe Dante has used his fondness for these bits of Americana to launch a website where he and his friends have gathered together a marvelous collection of trailers. Dante is the director of such films as Gremlins, The `Burbs, and The Howling. His fondness for the trailer obviously comes from his stint as a trailer editor for Roger Corman, a film maker known for working on the cheap and is famous for his Poe inspired films often starring the late Vincent Price.

His website Trailer From Hell is a treasure trove of trailers, and it is made special by the additional commentary provided by Dante's "gurus,"directors and producers who also have tremendous fondness for this snippets of goodness. Among the gurus, you can find Eli Roth, John Landis, and Guillermo del Toro. Do yourself a favor and check out this site. It is a treat. If you are especially a fan of horror or science fiction, especially from the sixties and seventies, then it's a positive gold mine.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

From The Little Beastiary

Lovecraft saw amazing things, and I'm thinking they were real. Except---maybe they were also very, very small. Small as in 1/2 milimeter in size. This picture is of something called a hydrothermal worm. It's something to think about when  the bedbugs stop being creepy enough for you.

This is from the folks at Red Orbit, who published this picture taken with a  FEI Quanta SEM electron microscope and the photo is credited FEI/Philippe Crassous

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Night Vision- new fiction by Stewart Sternberg

July 4th is the official launch date of Rick Moore's online publication White Cat Magazine. This pro-pay site is an attempt to draw in excellent writing and discerning readers by offering literature of a broad array of genre. Mr. Moore has been blogging for several years,  and this new venture is a logical move for him to express himself and extend his influence further into the writing community. We here at House-of-Sternberg wish him great success, although considering his entrepreneurial spirit, he should do just fine.

Oh, and if you need more motivation to check him out, his launch includes a work of dark fiction from your's truly. Night Vision. I hope you find it disturbing.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Benjamin, do you want me to seduce you?

I am currently wrapping up reading Charles Webb's The Graduate, published in 1963. It was a free Kindle read---so I figured, what they heck? But reading it, I was struck by how closely the film followed the book. I mean almost line by line and quote by quote. It's impossible to read the line: "Benjamin, is that what you want? Do you want me to seduce you?" without hearing Anne Bancroft's growly cougar voice.

Of course, Webb's writing is so sparse, it could have served as a script. So sparse that one wondered how it got published---this is Heminway sparse, with little to no description. And perhaps its sparsity is part of its brilliance. The novel's humor isn't slowed in any way...instead there is satiric setup and delivery with the commentary coming in the white spaces.

Webb is an interesting individual, and an author who never really capitalized on a chance to make it big in the literary world. While most people have read seen the film, relatively few who enjoyed that experience read the supposedly semi-autobiographical novel. Not that The Graduate wasn't a best seller in 1963, but it could have opened so many doors to the eccentric Mr. Webb, who has written several other novels.

In 2006, Mr.Webb wrote the sequel to The Graduate. The book, which many approached skeptically, detailed life for Benjamin and Elaine Braddock some twenty years after the end of the first novel. According to the description for Homeschool, the story once again involves Mrs. Robinson, who moves in with the couple in their upstate New York abode after the death of Mr. Robinson. She digs in and the couple contrive to drive her out by bringing in a counter-culture family of homeschoolers. Admittedly the premise sounds weak; it probably wouldn't have passed as a pilot on Fox, but many who have read the book have given it mild acceptance.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Once More Unto The Breach

A few people have asked whether The Ravening will see a sequel, and what else I might be working on. Well, I have a short story or two which should see publication, but I will hold off talking about those, except to say that they are in the Lovecraftian arena; however, yes, there will be a sequel to The Ravening. The working title is Zagreus Rising, Book Two of The Ravening. 

Besides Zagreus Rising, which I promise takes the story in unexpected directions, I'm wrapping up The Breach with Christine Purcell.
The Breach is steampunk. For those of you who might not follow this subgenre of fantasy and science fiction, I'll just say it takes place in early Victorian England. And while I'm not spilling much about the plot at this time, anything with airships fashioned after designs by Leonardo DaVinci, and featuring the lost tomb of Alexander The Great and the manipulation of realities, can't be all bad! Hopefully, this is the first of the adventures of the irresponsible if not charming Peter Styles, and the brilliant and courageous Ember Quatermain.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What is Story?

One writer said: "Story is about character development, it's about the connection between the reader and the protagonist." Another author said, "It's about what happens." Yet another said, "it's the connection between author and reader."

And all are right.

I recently wrote about story when putting together an introductory unit for a class I am constructing with Joe Ponepinto on creative writing. As I started constructing the introductory material, I stopped and considered what a nebulous term it was.

Everyone story , intuitively, but when it comes to defining the term the responses are often amazingly varied. And yet within the different answers is the heart of the definition.

To put it simply, "story is the aggregate of plot, character development, theme, and setting." Rather a sterile description. However, it helps us understand the phrase "that was a bad story." For usually when the statement is elaborated upon, we hear that the reason the story was bad was because the author failed in developing character or the plot was poorly constructed. Or perhaps the parts simply failed to gel as a whole.

And yet, the idea of story in terms of elements of writing still doesn't do the concept justice. Rather, one needs to go back to the most elemental basis of story, the idea of the communication of culture and knowledge between generations and the critical fulfillment of a need for the writer to connect and to share with an audience on an primitive level. This is the essence of story. It is the force that captured the hunter who held sway around a campfire before there was written word. It is the force that guided the hand of the artist who painted his emotions and ideas on the wall of a cave.

Story is our shared identity, and without it, we are lost.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Review: AREA 51

Summer's here.
Need something interesting to read? I did..and so I picked up a copy of Annie Jacobsen's Area 51: An Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military Base. This fascinating book gives us a new look at one of the favorite subjects of conspiracy theorists. Furthermore, it's a peek back at the Cold War mentality that so gripped this country during the forties, fifties, and sixties- a time when the American psyche was balanced between hope and desperation, between innocence and snarky awareness. This era, often distorted through romanticization (is that even a word?) and a need to reshape history for various reasons related to ideology and political correctness, is a complex and compelling time to study. And while Ms. Jacobsen doesn't set out to examine culture, her book nonetheless gives insights to that time and adds another piece to the puzzle.
So what's in Area 51? Annie Jacobsen's researched the topic, pouring through declassified material and interviewing employees who were once sworn to secrecy.. Her writing is convincing and ultimately the secrets revealed are what you would expect them to be. Area 51 was a site used for developing new weapons systems. Here scientists and the military worked on all manner of stealth technology and delivery systems.

The book is a quick read, and compelling. And of course, Jacobsen throws a few curves through the narrative, such as when she dishes speculation about what was recovered at Roswell. I won't spill the  beans on that one, but if you want more check out the videos below (all from, specifically the third video.

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Musical Interlude

I posted this some five years ago and stumbled upon it again while browsing through the archives. This is a priceless bit of musical video...enjoy

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Forgetting To Remember

Is it my age that makes me worry about memory loss, or cell phone radiation? That being said, after recently procuring a copy of Moonwalking With Einstein, a pretty interesting tale of an author who covered a memory competition and ended up training for one himself, I decided to do something about my own difficulties with memories, namely my inability to remember numbers.

I'm in awe of people able to hear a phone number and tuck it away for immediate recall. Me? I have six seconds to write it down or my eyeballs bleed. I might decide to use one of the methods in the book, but more immediately, I will probably embark on an experiment with what is called the "Consonant System Mnemonic." It's also called The Major Memory System.

Essentially, you assign sounds to numbers and then make up words to recall them, and with large numbers the words can become a sentence or a larger picture. If you're interested, there's a great explanation of how to achieve this on the website .

I will be experimenting with this system and report back on my progress if I can remember to do so.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Writing Darkly

Must...survive...two more weeks...till end of school....

Okay, with that out of my system, I must say it's been a long year. God bless summer, and god bless the hours ahead devoted to writing.

And may I indulge in a bit of self promotion? Of course I may.

I've been experimenting with a blogging system called SCOOP IT. It's been fun,and it makes blogging easy. You steal from other people. Okay, you don't steal, but instead you promote other people's writing in your own format.

Anyway, I would love for you to check on my site: WRITING DARKLY, and let me know what you think. Check in regularly, and I'll see what I can do to keep things interesting on there. Also, I feel free to check in on my twitter account some time.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Lesson One..Write Simply

Writing Is A Labyrinth---
This picture from  Guillermo del Toro's  "Pan's Labyrinth"
When reading authors who effortlessly glide through prose, painting amazing pictures with words, some new writers attempt to emulate them without understanding how the beloved author is executing his craft. As a result, the writing comes out convoluted, with pretty words slapped down for the sake of prettiness as opposed to function. 

I embrace the enthusiasm of these new writers, but sometimes learning to fly should occur only after one has managed to walk a straight line. Before leaping into bursts of metaphor and executing impressive literary gymnastics, I urge new writers to take a deep breath and consider the basics. And nothing is more basic than clarity.

If you are going to tell the story of someone walking down the street, then tell the story simply. Begin by making sure the reader sees it. Don't attempt to laden it with atmosphere and tension. Not yet. Just show us the man walking. Once you've mastered the ability to write clearly, the rest will follow.

"He walked down the street, his hands in his pockets. Occasionally, he looked over his shoulder. At the end of the street he stopped. He stood there for a long time. Wrapped in a heavy coat, he ignored the cold and the threat of rain."

See? Basic. Clear. Simple. If we want to go back and add some atmosphere, we can do so.

"He walked down the street, hands thrust in his pockets. Occasionally, he checked over his shoulder, pale eyes worriedly scanning the neighborhood. At the end of the street he stopped and stood for a long time. Wrapped in a heavy coat, he waited, ignoring the cold and the menacing clouds moving in above. The weather was the least of his concerns."

The second paragraph isn't that much different, but it increases tension and gives you more character description. The tweaks made do not impede clarity. Quite frankly, some of the changes in the second paragraph water down the tension from the first.

And if I started a story with this paragraph, but had no idea what I wanted to write about, I might now stop and ask "who is this guy?" "what is he worried about?" "Where is he?" etc.  If nothing else, it's a good writing exercise.

Ambition is a fine thing for a writer, but over-reach can kill a work and add to frustration. Who needs that? Instead, read some folk who knew how to write clearly and simply, but who knew how to do so with power. Hemingway comes to mind. Robert B. Parker is another (no, Parker wasn't a great writer, but he knew how to efficiently move a story forward---the man was the epitome of economy). Maybe clarity alone won't sell a manuscript, but without clarity, I promise rejection.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Writing Like Stanislavski

There are certain truisms that serve as inspiration for me. Here is one: "Stories are about people."

That should be written backwards on the forehead of everyone who writes so that they see it whenever they look in the mirror. We can love plot, we can focus on theme and genre, we can talk about word use and grammar, but unless we write about people and give the reader someone with whom to identify, we are not writing our best. How can there be catharsis, that satisfying purging of emotion that Aristotle wrote about, unless we first care about the protagonist?

But the issue of how to develop character is far more complex than agreeing on the importance of character development. Anybody who has taken any literature class has heard the teacher's mantra: "Character is developed through what the character says and how they act, and how other people respond to them." But oh, how difficult to incorporate this development seamlessly into a narrative!

In the last few weeks I've been reading up on Stanislavski, the person who gave "method acting" to theater. Stanislavski believed actors preparing for a role should give careful consideration of a character's psychological motives and that they should have personal link with the character. They should, if possible, become the character. But what about writers? If a character springs from a writer's mind, then shouldn't he already have that link? Already have a grasp of the character's psychological motives? 

Maybe, but then again maybe not. In my opinion, many authors approach characters by sweeping a paint brush across a canvas. They have some ideas, and they believe the character will define himself as the tale progresses.

"I want to discover the character as I write," someone told me once. "I can always go back and edit out inconsistencies." Hearing this made me worry that the character might become merely a projection of the writer at that point in time, and not have a life of his own (admittedly an illusion since a writer creates the character). If a protagonist is clearly set down ahead of time, then  character becomes the centerpiece of the writing. 

Like Stanislavski, I want my characters to be real for me. I find a picture of someone who I believe represents my character, and then from there I proceed to write a biography. It can be long or short, it can provide excessive backstory which will never make into the writing process, or a brief sketch---but it gives me a framework for understanding who I am dealing with. It establishes a foundation. 

Peter Styles and Ember Quatermain (yes, the daughter of the great explorer),  protagonists for THE BREACH, a steampunk novel which Christine Purcell and I are at this point shopping around, were created in just this manner. In fact, since THE BREACH is a collaboration, it was even more important that they become solid characters for the authors. Since two minds bring two different perspectives, having a pre-established profile kept us consistent and on the right path. 

I know there are many people who don't want to write this way. They believe a work should be organic, that it should evolve through a natural process. They want to discover who they are writing about. And that's fine. There is no one way to write. However, discoveries often take you down false trails and you have to backtrack and rediscover the one that feels right. The reader often doesn't have the patience to follow you down those false trails if you forget to go back and edit them out, or worse, leave them in because they are interesting for you and satisfy your vanity. A false step for a character can pull a reader out of a story and thus destroy the suspension of disbelief necessary to build the connection between writer and audience.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Creative Writing or Literature Classes?

I was chatting last night with someone about classes in creative writing. I've taken a few, but didn't gain as much from them as I gained from taking literature classes. Listening to other bad writers as an interested but distracted teacher tried driving home elements of plot, character development, and POV, using neat catch phrases like "show-don't-tell" and "Stewart, what the hell?" made it difficult for me to appreciate the venue. If you get my drift?

Literature, on the other hand, was mellow. Studying proven authors, seeing how they utilized theme and motif, and how they developed character arc along with plot helped me understand how elements of writing fit together. It was far easier to understand the concept of voice in a literature class than it was to find my voice in a creative writing class. Perhaps it helped that literature classes didn't pressure the student to submit his own  work, a potentially ego threatening proposition.

So, am I suggesting literature classes are the path for the would-be writer? No.

Approaching one's development as a writer isn't an all or nothing proposition. It is a process. And perhaps what I came to understand about a structured approach to learning writing is that one needs a balance. The literature classes are valuable, as are the creative writing classes, and when they are combined intelligently they are the best hope a student has of developing skills through an appreciation of what he saw in the works of others.

When reading advice from famous authors, one will always hear two strong themes. First, write---only by practicing one's art can one improve it (of course, by practicing, we mean with a self-critical eye). And second, read. Read and study other authors, not with an eye for imitation, but for understanding how that person executed his craft.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Is It Penguicon Time Again? Where's The Tron Guy???

Hard to believe I won't be on a panel about zombies at the upcoming Penguicon, and yet it is so. That doesn't mean I won't be in the audience taunting the panelists. Of course, I shall have to hide from editor Chuck Zaglanis, who insists that I behave myself. And while Chuck may be able to stalk me, he won't be able to keep me away from fellow troublemakers Daniel Hogan and Christian Klaver. No, he won't. And  my collaborator Christine Purcell, with whom I am working on The Breach, the first of the steampunk series, The Dark Reality Chronicles, will be bad. Very, very, very bad (notice the bold faced 'very'?). And furthermore, there's Rick Moore. Enough Said.

If you're interested in participating in my bad behavior, then join me at one of the various panels I'll be on: Social Networking for Promotion, Writers' Groups (somewhere my own group just did a collective gasp), and Is It Steampunk Yet? (the answer to this question is, of course, yes it is.)

And if we're really lucky, the TRON GUY will be there.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Harold And Maude---an old friend

Do you ever wonder why a particular film touches you? The film may not even be very good, and it may only be one scene, but it reaches you at a deep level, provoking all manner of emotional and intellectual response. And what happens when you try and share the experience with someone else?  Yes, they often patiently slip side-glances at you, trying to smile encouragingly at your enthusiasm. And even worse, what happens when you watch that film a second time and feel nothing???

The litmus test, of course, is being able to watch a motion picture over and over again, finding new levels of appreciation. Sure, the original blast lessens with time and exposure, but the film becomes an old friend, someone with whom you enjoy sharing time together, and whom offers you new things to discover. Casablanca is one of my closest friends, so is Harvey, starring Jimmy Stewart. And who can forget The Big Lebowsky? I wonder what these titles reveal about me?

And then, there's Harold and Maude. Some of you born after 1970 are saying, "Never heard of it." Don't feel bad. It was a flop at the theaters, although the American Film Institute has it listed as one of its one hundred funniest films. I suppose a motion picture about a twenty year old who keeps playing at killing himself striking a romantic relationship with a seventy-nine-year old woman isn't exactly the sort of topic matter which immediately strikes folk as a typical date flick.

I'm not sure why I identify with the story so strongly. Perhaps it's the theme--- it's about outsiders finding one another and learning to appreciate life in what has become for each, a lonely and sterile existence. They're odd ducks, funny and snarky, and the film is blackest comedy. That being said, it is also filled with comforting optimism and it reminds me of the importance of living in the present and trying to appreciate the people around you.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Looking At Theme (part two)

An imaginary conversation to further develop the earlier post. Before reading this, you might want to check out Looking At Theme

     The first author shook his head.
     "Maybe theme is something to consider if you're writing 'literary' work, but I write genre."
     I mulled over the statement and responded, "Why should genre writing be exempt from development of theme as a major component of the writing?"
     "Because people don't necessarily want to be bogged down thinking about what something is about," someone countered. "Because people want a story. They want something to happen. If you have interesting characters, and people care about them, and they are doing something, then who cares about theme. As long as the action is kept going, people are happy."
     "All stories have theme, even if the theme is buried. Even if it is unintentional," I said. "I'm just suggesting the work is stronger when the author is working with theme in mind."
     "All stories have theme? What about Twilight?" someone asked with a snarky tone.
     "The theme is about the difficulty of the outsider. Bela is an outsider, the vampires are outsider within the greater society, both because of their behavior and their innate status. There are subthemes there as well, such as man's separation from nature, the intolerance of people for those different from themselves..."
     Someone laughed.
     "Maybe the weakness of Twilight as a narrative, and its lack of durability as literature, is because the themes I just mentioned aren't planned and don't work together as a whole. It's a mire of themes, but they're there, and they obviously speak to the reader, considering the sales."
     "What about movies? What about Iron Man II?"
     "It's about how members of one generation sometimes pay for the sins of their fathers, it's about the dangers of excess and the danger of power without responsibility."
     "With great power comes great responsibility," someone said. "Spiderman."
     "What about Get Me To The Greek? The one with Russell Brand? It's just a goofy comedy."
     "It's about the personal price we pay when we surrender integrity for gain. It's also about the cost of excess, the importance of friendship, and the shallowness of society where there are no checks and balances on behavior."

Friday, April 01, 2011

Looking At Theme

I apologize for what, I don't.

There is a breed of writers who come late to the craft, feeling they can slip into their work with a superficial understanding of literature. Hey, they like to read, don't they? Then what the heck? These folk tend to do a good deal of mimicking of their favorite authors without a deep appreciation of the underlying writing principles. Many flock to writers' groups, present their efforts and receive feedback without giving consideration to dedicating themselves to improving their different problem areas. Instead they concentrate on the one short story or chapter without addressing the overall issue, which is sort of like turning up the volume on the radio to cover the sound of an unpleasant engine noise.

I have therefore decided to do a series of posts, not necessarily as a writer, but as a teacher. I thought I would examine certain literary concepts which span all genres. If someone reads what I have to offer and it sparks ideas or self-examination for improvement, so much the better. If all it does is allow me to revisit certain ideas for my own introspection, then that's fine, too.


This is perhaps one of the most important concepts for me as a writer and as a reader. It also seems to be one of the most difficult ideas for some writers I know to grasp. "Not all stories have theme," someone argued. "I just write. As long as I tell a good story, what's the problem?"

My response is that where the writer gives careful consideration to theme, you have a stronger story, one where the characters and the plot have greater impact. The theme is quite simply the glue. If Yoda were teaching a class to Jedi writers, he would explain : "Theme is an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy and your writing together."

Theme, quite simply, is what a story is about. It's the underlying idea. In Christina Myers-Shaffer's excellent book The Principle of Literature, A Guide for Readers and Writers, the idea of theme is defined this way:

"Unlike topic (the subject of the story, such as war, love, business, or children), the theme is what the story is about, its plot, setting, and character blended with the writer's perceptions to make a statement about a subject." Some folks will attempt to classify conflict as theme, stating all stories boil down to either man v. man, man v. nature, or man v. himself. This simplified attempt to compress an idea is wonderful for multiple choice quizzes, but not so good for picking apart complicated concepts or for giving a writer or reader a true sense of what an author is trying to accomplish.

The theme of a story is usually not directly stated, but instead revealed through the characters' words, actions, and through plot. While some themes may stand out to the readers, others may not be so apparent. And sometimes, to make matters worse, a single work have different themes, some even competing, others layered.

Perhaps for the sake of clarity, it would help to look at an example. I will use a well-known work which I hope most people are familiar---Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird. 

The novel is about the coming of age of a young girl, but to present that as the dominant theme ignores the other themes which are part of her loss of innocence (although I would argue Scout doesn't entirely lose her innocence). Perhaps the richest complementary thematic thread to this is the idea that lack of understanding and acceptance causes tremendous damage to people who are perceived by others as different.
This theme is front and center, and given voice in her father's admonition: "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view---until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it."

When you stop and see examine the characters and the plot development in To Kill A Mockingbird, it's easy to see how the author has woven together some possible disparate threads into a unifying and satisfying whole. Without the theme, you have a number of touching elements coming together, but they have no anchor.

Aristotle wrote about this idea of creating a whole in The Poetics. He addresses the idea of unity in writing (and we can express unity as being the combination of elements of writing in forwarding a theme or idea. According to Aristotle:

"As therefore, in the other imitative arts, the imitation is one when the object imitated is one, so the plot, being an imitation of an action, must imitate one action and that a whole, the structural union of the parts being such that, if any one of them is displaced or removed, the whole will be disjointed and disturbed. For a thing whose presence or absence makes no visible difference, is not an organic part of the whole."

Perhaps the easiest way to break it down is to describe the theme as a compass. When a writer sits and considers elements of plot or how a character behaves, he might stop and ask how these things fit into the theme he or she has chosen as the spine of their work.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?

I've been recently thinking about the term "steampunk." The steam part I get, but the punk part still makes me uneasy. What exactly is this growing sub-sub-sub genre  and what is its relationship to "splatterpunk," "cyberpunk," and the ever popular "romancepunk." Okay, I made that last one up, but it's coming.

First, what exactly is punk? It's was, and is, an ill-defined self-indulgent, nihilistic, anti-authoritarian movement which began in the late seventies. It mocked commercialism while steeping itself in the commercial. A youth movement, or niche, it changed as its adherents aged and moved on. What was punk became goth, which became emo, which became..

But what about as a form of literature?

Cyberpunk, popularized by authors such as John Shirley, John Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Lewis Shiner, is characterized  by stories with an emphasis on technology and characters marginalized by society. The heroes are loners and outcasts who fight to maintain their dignity and identity in a global society where uniformity and not individuality is a state of being. In cyberpunk the anti-authoritarian thread, woven with a hint of anarchy, ties plot, theme, and character together.

Splatterpunk? The term, which was allegedly coined by David J. Schow, probably has a greater place in film than literature. The term splatter refers to violence. Gore. Blood and guts. Chainsaws. Meat hooks. Instruments of torture. Get the picture? And if we add the term punk to that, we would expect a literature which focuses again on marginalized characters, loners and outcasts. One suspects the violence and the characters in "punk" lit is aimed folk feeling powerless who might identify with someone acting out the anger which  burns. 

Which brings us to steampunk. The steam refers to science fantasy, usually set in a bygone era, where parallel science has developed allowing computers and airships to exist before their time. These alternate histories are perhaps a rebellion against the world of hard science fiction where it seems the modern reader might need a degree in engineering or biochemical science to understand what is going on. Perhaps that's the punk part, the idea that the literature itself is a form of rebellion. Maybe its fans feel that through the work they are able to retreat to a time where the technology was safer and where the individual had more control. And like its siblings splatterpunk and cyberpunk, the characters are often on the outside, trying to cope with a world gone wry. They are misfits before the onslaught of industrialism has taken the artisan from behind his bench and stuck him on a faceless assembly-line.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

A Correction

I would like to take a moment to make a correction. In a bio I wrote for The Ravening, I stated that High Seas Cthulhu, an anthology in which I had a story published, had been nominated for a Stoker. This was an error on my part. I sincerely hope people will forgive me for this mis-statement. At the time I wrote the blurb, I was under the impression this was the truth, perhaps wishful thinking or pure exuberance.  I would like to thank Rick Moore for bringing this to my attention.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Marketplace

How does a writer proceed with a marketing plan?

A friend of mine sold several novels to numerous small presses. All well and good. However, most of these titles have not seen distribution through any major outlet, and therefore his ratings are slim. These ratings don't relate to the quality of his work, but rather how well he sells, how much of a brand his name may be or stand a chance of becoming. It's difficult to sell well if one doesn't promote one's work, or if that work isn't on display somewhere for the casual or not-so-casual shopper.

A few folk have waved away this concern. "It doesn't matter where you're published, as long as you're published," some say. "If you're good enough, you'll shine through. Persistence will pay off. Eventually, the larger publishers who pay more will recognize you and be forced to buy your manuscripts and market you."

Others may comment,  "There's always the electronic publication path. Sell your book on Amazon." Or, "I don't care about the corporations. They don't care about me. I know I can do well self-publishing and be my own boss."  Hmmm.

With the business in such flux, the choir of discordant voices is understandable. Look at how many titles are being cut by publishing houses, look at Border's current bankruptcy and the recent celebration of the rise of the ebook. Look at the drop in actual readership, and especially the drop in young readers. Look too at the manufactured author, the one chosen by a multinational corporation and promoted to godhood even before a book is released (not that I'm blaming Justin Cronin for jumping at the opportunity).

In the end, what is the unknown and unloved author to do? My personal belief, for what it is worth, is to have a marketing plan, one which is adaptable and comfortable. Study your market, look at the call for submissions; if you haven't been published, then turn to the net and seek publication there. If you are published, then (my opinion) be careful of the ratings. If you have a novel, try and sell it where there is distribution. If there isn't distribution, your ratings drop and it will become harder for a publisher to interest a distributor to push your book through the chains. If you're an author who had ratings and saw them plummet two or three books in, then perhaps its time for a name change and reboot of a career. Or not.

There's no one path. But I believe stumbling into the marketplace without some knowledge and foresight is a guarantee of failure. The author who writes without a marketing plan is the author who would do well to buy a lottery ticket each time he or she sends out a submission. Actually, that might be a good practice for anyone sending out submission.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Beauty of Group

I had an interesting writers group session the other night, which once again showed me the value of the group process for writers. We were discussing one author's first two chapters and several of us began focusing on character development. What began as single, orderly observations became an amazing riff with folks rapidly building concept and feeding off one another's perceptions. Loud, unruly, manic, it was what a group should be, a positive and re-energizing synergistic explosion.

I'm not saying a group shouldn't have structure, or that people shouldn't wait in turn, but sometimes it is liberating to let the discussion follow an organic evolution. And Christine Purcell, my collaborator on The Breach, whose job it was to ride roughshod on us, let the banter and ideas flow, reining us in at last by care-taking the person whose work we were critiquing and making sure ideas were summarized and needs were met.

Any group is a tricky animal to groom and maintain. Too often some groups fall into a predictable groove and tedium ensues. Mixing it up, changing or rotating leadership, trying different activities and letting things evolve rather than forcing them are often the difference between a productive outing and a fulfilling experience.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Saturday, February 05, 2011

From The Valley of Scorned Books

When to let go.

Some folk have no problems tossing aside a book. They get to page fifty, decide it isn't worth their time, and without a qualm, pitch the offender. Me? If I get to page ten, I'm probably going all the way. A book has to be something extraordinarily horrible for me to give it the heave ho. I'll curse the author, the editor, the publisher, their parents, wives, immediate and extended families, and rend my clothing---but I'll finish the damned book.

In the last few years, I've only abandoned three or four reads. One was the work of a well-known and successful genre author who heavy-handedly beat me up with his ideology (one diametrically opposed to my own). Another was a book sent my way by a publisher who asked for a review (I made it through half the novel before deleting it from the Kindle). I wrestled with this one, trying to decide how to say something, anything, which might be used for promotion. In the end, I remained silent. What else could I do?

I wonder what my inability to abandon a book says about me as a person? Is it part of the strangeness that makes me think the furniture dances when I head off to bed? That the plates convene a some sort of meeting? Or that books sit on a shelf, waiting their turn, hoping to read and enjoyed and then reshelved, rather than cast aside in scorn.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Shadow At the Entrance

As I entered Barnes and Noble I was presented with a salesperson hawking THE NOOK, B&N's e-reader. Now, I have nothing against The Nook, although I am a Kindle Person myself. However, as I watched the salesperson and the interest in this reader, and as I watched the employees behind the cash registers, at the cafe, and milling about as they serviced the different shelves and fielded questions from customers, I wondered what they were thinking? Were they looking at The Nook and seeing their future? Were they considering a recent article where the number of e-books sold last quarter constituted a sizable chunk of the market.

A great many folk will point out that a tremendous number of folk love books...that which they can hold in their hands and collect. Ignoring the diminishing number of titles being released and the collapse of the magazine fiction market, these folks point to the cost of an ebook, which isn't always a bargain when one is considering new releases.

I am not taking one side or the other in the e-book v. book challenge. I am merely an observer. I was also an observer in the cd v. vinyl war and the famous mp3's v. cd apocalypse. I recognize change is inevitable and while some will dig in and rail against it, the less stressful path is to either throw open one's arms and welcome the new, or else take the role of quiet observer. But be careful folks, it ain't about the aesthetics, it's about the economics, and who can control more while squeezing the most out of it.

Capitalism isn't about philanthropy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Looking For The Ravening

Someone told me they purchased a copy of The Ravening from Barnes and Noble. They went into the store, asked for it, and the store ordered it. When it came in, the person picked up her copy. Apparently the store ordered at least five copies of the book, probably figuring if one person ordered it, surely there would be more customers.

I decided to visit Barnes and Noble. There's nothing quite inspiring as seeing one's book on a shelf. I looked...and looked...and looked...and nothing. Puzzled, I went to the service counter and asked if it was in stock. "Yes," said a bright young man, and proceeded to lead me to it. The books were on a bottom shelf, impossible to see, in the general fiction section!!!

"This is a horror novel. Shouldn't it be with the other horror novels? Maybe sitting next to some of the other zombie books?"

He shrugged. I nodded and went back to the general section, bending over sideways so I could see the title through the deep shadows of the bottom shelf of the general fiction section.

It could have been worse.

Oh..and a post script...if any of you have read the book and liked it...would you consider posting a few kind words of review on either the Amazon site or the Barnes and Noble site. Heck, you could even spread the love through Goodreads.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Rejection..The New Pragmatism

With the new year comes new opportunities...and some rejections, but such is the life of a writer.

I recently had a discussion with some other folk about rejection, something people should expect to receive more of as the number of publishing venues shrinks. The discussion trended toward...

1) What was the fastest you've ever been rejected (my own self? Three days..fastest acceptance? A few hours.)
2) What was the most frustrating rejection? (One friend received someone else's form letter)
3) What was the most encouraging? (When I was twenty, I sent a short story to the New Yorker and received a personalized, several paragraph hand-written response).

Mostly, when I've had a story returned and thought about it, I tend to find something to change, or I realize I should have done a better job researching the market and meeting the editorial needs. I've also had the opportunity to talk to editors and hear their stories about psychotic writers, but I'll let others speak to that.