Sunday, November 25, 2012

Reading The Headlines

I once had to compose headlines for a weekly newspaper. It isn't as easy as you might think. You need to tease the reader into taking in the first couple paragraphs, but you don't want to mislead him or her. Also, increasingly, more and more people get their news from just the headlines. I promise you that in the last week someone read these gems from the New York Times and was satisfied that they had a grasp of what might be happening in the world:

"Early Sales Push Undercuts Black Friday," "More Than 100 Dead In Bangladesh Fire," "Trade Deal Between Europe and US Gains Momentum."

What else do you need? 

And if you're not especially intellectually curious, or if you want a slant on your headlines, then try these from a few conservative newspapers: "Emboldened Gay Marriage Supporters Now Want more," "What Would Jesus Shoot? Churches Offer Gun Classes."  

And from the left? "Occupy Shows Solidarity with WalMart Workers," and " Your Smartphone's Dirty, Radioactive Secret."

But fear not, there are other headlines out there, headlines that truly offer us a look behind the curtain: "What are the odds? Sasquatch researcher says Bigfoot ravaged apple orchard in his backyard – and he has video to prove it " Well, thank God he can prove it.  Or... from The Examiner: "UFO: Washington Mountain Suggests Alien-like Base." 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Writing Real

My friend Joe Ponepinto said something to me last week which has stuck with me, "Stewart, why don't you try writing memoir?"

In the last few days, as I've struggled with a short story I'm working on, I've paused and tried to imagine what I could write about which wouldn't A) get me in trouble with someone either emotionally, or legally, and B) would be interesting enough for someone to invest in as a reader.

It occurred to me that I've written many revealing things on this blog. I've written some stuff about teaching and some stuff about my relationship with my parents and family. I've expressed outrage and joy and shaken my fist at the wind. But the blog isn't really memoir is it? The blog is five hundred words of anecdote masquerading as something of substance. Before someone can really open up (someone who isn't entirely crazy), the space element and the possibility of immediate and public comment shuts down real disclosure.

Still, since all writing is somewhat autobiographical in that it draws upon some level of prior experience regardless of the content, why not do memoir? I've worked as a movie critic, as a social worker, as a teacher. I've run for public office and engaged in glorious public stupidity.

Now, I just need to own it and find in my life the elements that make my fictional characters and the things they do interesting.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

a goldfish bowl, a train, and a man in black...story three

This is a reprint of flash fiction I did from a few years back. It was a challenge..the prompt was to write something including a goldfish bowl, a train, and a man in black. And to push myself harder, I wrote one each day for five days. Here is one of my favorites, from day three.

The train bound for the work camp rumbled through the night. Shem leaned back against someone, grateful for that person's warmth and for the counterbalance that provided his aching legs relief. He wished he could eat; the Nazis had promised to feed them at the next large town. Instead, the door was thrown open and more Jews were herded in as a black jacketed S.S. officer good-naturedly called out instruction.

"Shem?" The voice belonged to Ari, a neighbor who hated Communists more than he hated Nazis. "Do you remember Anna's goldfish?"

Shem didn't respond.

"You want to hear something funny?" Ari continued. "I remember every little detail about them. It's uncanny. But Shem, I can't remember my Anna's face. It's a blur. Why? Why do you think that is?"

It seemed several people held their breaths to catch his response, as if his answer would give them something to cling to. The burden was unforgiving.

"You remember because the goldfish don't matter," said Shem. "Later, when this nightmare ends, you'll remember."

"And if the rumors about the camp are true?"

"Then someone else will have to remember."

Thursday, August 09, 2012

This Ain't Poetry, This Is Suicide, Baby!

Poetry reading held in northern Detroit suburb. Art is in the air. I settle into one of the uncomfortable metal folding chairs and look around. Mostly middle-aged people and I sense something else...self-satisfaction. Give them a moment and they'll start purring.

The first woman reads. She's dressed in black; her strange yellow hair is highlighted with purple edges. She's been published in different literary journals (you know, the sort where writers read other writers, because readers won't), and she's even had her work acknowledged by Garrison  Keillor, so what the hell.  She reads..something about Cambodia and children. The audience leans forward. And as she ends a string of words soulfully enunciated, a choir of "hmmms" sound around me. Hmmms?

Yes, the audience appreciation has reached a zenith and can no longer be contained. The only appropriate outburst of such yuppihood is a heartfelt hmmm, expressed with profound meaning to try and connect with the poet, to show her how deeply she has touched them. HMMMMMM.  I wonder how such an expression of appreciation would sound in the midst of a sexual encounter.


Another poet approaches the stage. The bar has been set high. How do you match this level of intensity and soulfulness? Damn it. I see the fear in her eyes. What began as a reading is now a competition which has escalated to dizzying heights. Hmmmm.

Her eyes tear.

What? Yes! She's playing the moist eyes card. There's a quiver in her voice as she delivers a bit of word soup, a jumble of consonants dripping with angst. A pause. Electricity crackles in the air begins with one small "Hmmmm," tentatively expressed, but quickly picked up by someone in the back. "Hmmmm."  "Hmmmm"  It builds. The moment is magic. The incoherent mumblings around me are evidence that this isn't just poetry, this is mind-numbing genius which energizes the shakra and dances through the cosmos. The challenge has been met and she is triumphant!

And the next poet? Why bother. Really. Why bother? It takes everything I have not to say that out loud. Instead I shake my head, cringe a little at the indigestion I'm suffering from having eaten too much spice, and mumble "hmmm."

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Back From Oz and I Ain't Dorothy

Friends, it has been a long strange road, but I'm back, and I promise to be more outrageous than ever. Where have I been? For the last few months I've been in a dream where I am campaigning for local office, taking on a candidate backed by the Van Trapp family and managed by Up With People. Seriously. Small town politics have never been creepier. At any time I expected to see Kevin McCarthy running down Main Street crying out.."They're here! Listen to me, they're everywhere!!!" And in the center of the dream? A diminutive man with a little well-manicured hands and an unsettling smile reminiscent of one of Willy Wonka's helpers.

And when I woke up, I was grinning, and that can't be a good thing. I only wish I were a team player. Look for future posts, and look out for the pods..I understand they can be anywhere. In your back yard. In your basement. In your local political party.

Next? I go to a poetry reading. You won't want to miss this.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


This Monday I will be posting the next update in the Dark Reality Chronicles story "The Magic Trap," a tale featuring characters from the soon to be released THE BREACH. The story so far? The rakish Peter Styles, a reformed necromancer with the ability to tune into people's thoughts, and his friend Avery Tressler (a name you might recognize from High Seas Cthulhu) are walking along the fringe of a London park on a cloudy afternoon. As they engage in banter, they are blasted by some psychic disturbance which might have possibly opened a rift in reality, if only for a moment. Ten people are dead from the blast.

Peter and Avery learn the disturbance is the result of a device capable of harnessing magical energy. They must find a way to stop the individual responsible before he or she can set off another blast.

Monday, May 07, 2012

For Reading Out Loud

Christine Purcell and myself recently did a reading of a section of our upcoming novel "THE BREACH." Listening to us, I kept, I am so glad I'm not listening to us on an audio book. Why? We were dreadful. I stumbled over the text, pathetically dragging at times, and Christine read quickly, swallowing her words like so many bon-bons. And both of us don't stand a chance with a British accent, something critical when reading a steampunk novel set in England in 1864.

We'll have to get someone else to read our work for audio presentation, and presumably someone from across the pond. That being said, I still struggle with the idea that I'm not doing the reading. I wrote the thing, after all---or rather...we wrote it. We should read it. And people should adore us.

And then I think about the reading and how we sounded.


Saturday, April 07, 2012

The Art of The Breach

Covers are important. They make the difference between someone clicking on your book for download and someone scrolling onto the next title. Looking at artwork for the ebook of The Ravening, for instance, it is too easy to do the traditional zombie cover. I was happy with the original trade cover, but now the look feels overworked. You've seen it: a close up of a dead person's face, usually just the eyes or half the face, and behind it, the shadows of a horde in waiting. Creepy as hell when we first saw the trope emerge in the artwork for Romero's Dawn of the Dead--now just tired.

Thankfully, Christine Purcell and I have a cover being developed which won't be the usual slick image for urban fantasy and steampunk. Instead the artist Senyphine has crafted something dark and expressive. I won't show it to you now, you'll have to wait a little for the reveal, but if you want a sense of what The Breach is going to look like, check out her amazing online gallery. I think my favorite is what she did for The Raven.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Books They Don't Read

Yesterday, as I was leaving The Hunger Games, I heard a discussion between a husband and wife. She asked if he had read the second book of the trilogy yet. His reply was: "Not yet, I just don't have time to read a book." I would have passed that off, except I had a similar discussion with someone else, a self-proclaimed "reader" who usually finished between fifteen and twenty books a year.

"I don't read as much as I'd like. I have way too many books collecting dust on my shelves."

As an author, I always think about the competition I face getting accepted by a publisher, but I sometimes forget the importance of the competition from that point on. And I never thought about the additional competitive issue--getting read once someone had something I wrote in hand.

Stop and think about it. If you're an author, or a reader, think about all the books you own which you've never read. Think about all the books you've bought with the thought "I'll get to it."

Why is this important? Because if someone reads one thing you've written, it's more likely they'll read another. It's important because, for me any way, I want someone to enjoy what I've produced. I want them to get their money's worth. Right now, I'm getting ready to release The Ravening on e-book and I'm doing an extensive revision to the original, not only making sure the writing is crisp, but actually changing some of the scenes. And as I work, doing my best for the reader, I ask, "Does it really matter? Why not leave the original alone?" Since so many people browse the books on their shelves and e-readers when looking for their next read, the answer has to be, "Yes, it matters." 

So, for all you writers out there, the next time you go to a friend's house and catch a glimpse of the books lining their shelves (if they have any), ask them which ones they haven't read. If they're honest, repress your shudder and think about it the next time you get to work.

Just something else to fuel your neurosis. You're welcome. 

Friday, March 09, 2012

As Tweet as Tweet Can Be part 1

Jon looked at me and wanted to know about "this Twitter thing."  What would be a good way to promote yourself on Twitter? What the heck can someone do in 140 characters? Who reads it? Aren't most Twitter feeds just mindless ramblings about things which no one cares about?

"Twitter is networking," I said. The screaming had stopped now and I had to change the bucket to capture the rest of the blood flow.

"Some of the people I follow on Twitter give me some outstanding information. They provide useful links on a number of subjects I'm interested in. I've been directed to outstanding informational pieces about writing."

"So what kinds of Twitter posts will you find and how do you get more followers or subscribers, or whatever?" Jon asked.

"Hand me the chainsaw," I said. "Well, Jon, there are basically four or five kinds of tweets and users sometimes tend to use a majority or one kind or another, but it's best to mix things up."

I had to shout to be heard over the chainsaw. "You got the people who communicate through Twitter. They tend to try and carry on conversations. People will communicate back and forth using the @ sign before someone's name to get that person's attention. For instance, one tweet might be: "Hey, @jonzech I'm at the mall. Where are you?"

People think chainsaws can cut through everything, but they can also make an incredible mess doing so. I wiped my face.

"Then you got people who share information. That's something I try and do. I find interesting links, things which I think my readers or followers will find of interest and post the hotlinks. Sometimes, I do it by "retweeting," which means posting someone else's tweet."

"What about if I'm just trying to sell my  book," Jon said.

"Well...lot's of people try and do that, but it can be pretty lame getting constant tweets saying "BUY MY STUFF!!! And trust me, there are folk who do that. I won't mention names, or even initials (J.S.) And there are people who just want to follow, they just want to watch things trending and learn things."

I paused, catching my second wind. "And then there are some people who just want to express themselves. They just want to say something profound, something artistic, or funny. I try and do that from time to time and maybe mix things up."

"Tell me more," Jon said. "I mean is there any sort of protocol? Is there something I can do to be more effective?"

The sound of a police siren made me look up. I hastily undid my apron and started for the door. "Maybe we should finish this later. Come, we'll talk more once we're on the road."

See As Tweet as Tweet Can Be...Part 2

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Be My Yenta

Writers hear it all the time: "You have to market yourself."

It's a mantra.

"You won't find a publisher unless you have a digital presence and unless you've proven that you can tap into a network."

So, here's my question, and one I pose seriously, "What's the best way to market yourself?" Me? I think it's forging relationships and moving through social networking building bonds with a community, not just for self-promotion, but because you enjoy being part of that community. Others obviously take a different view. They tend to speak up only occasionally, and usually when they have something to promote.


And this is not just a message delivered once, but many times across several platforms. There's one horror writer I won't mention who is a human sandwich board moving through Facebook.

I'm asking. What is your idea of promotion? What should a writer do to market himself intelligently and efficiently? I want free advice here. Be my yenta (Note..for my non-Jewish friends..yenta is a matchmaker, but also a meddler, gossip, and advice giver).

Friday, February 24, 2012

If It Looks Like A Penguin

I had sworn off conventions. A year, I said to myself. Maybe two. So much for such proclamations. Penguicon, here I come.

I complain a good deal about genre conventions. I whine. I shuffle my feet. I pout. I pout a lot. Ultimately, I go and in spite of myself, I have a good time. The reality is these conventions are a great chance to get to see old friends, to meet new folk, and to talk about things which usually end up being marked as "strange" in normal company. Where else but a convention could you listen to an earnest discussion about the correct depiction of magic in fiction? Or hear fellows on a panel almost come to blows over whether or not steampunk is an actual genre or subgenre or esthetic?

So, here's to my friends, The Curmudgeon will be there. And if you attend any panel I'm scheduled on, I promise to be just as cantankerous as always. And also, if things go well, my collaborator Christine Purcell and I will be doing a reading from our upcoming novel The Breach.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Drifting Into Digitization

You may have missed this, but Sideline Music Magazine has announced that by the end of this year most major labels will have abandoned the Compact Disc. Not that this should be a surprise to anyone who has tried looking for a recent release at one of their local outlets. From now on, if you want to buy music, you're going to have to either stream it or download it.

This is also the future of the film industry. And certainly books. Of course, there are those who will go into this future raging against the dying of the light. Johnathan Franzen, for instance, who responded in an interview with The Guardian, "Maybe nobody will care about printed books 50 years from now, but I do. When I read a book, I'm handling a specific object in a specific time and place. The fact that when I take the book off the shelf it still says the same thing – that's reassuring."

Perhaps the most persuasive argument against the digitization of our world is offered by a friend of mine, Jon Zech, author of Buck and Tangee: Things That Happen (a book to be released later this year).

"Some day anthropologists will look at our leavings and wonder what happened. Why did our civilization suddenly stop producing anything artistic after the first decade or so of the twenty first century? One can't conduct carbon testing on bits and bytes. We're all really just one giant electromagnetic pulse away from a new Dark Ages, aren't we?"

Saturday, February 18, 2012


I'm a sentimentalist. Truly. I know, I seems like I'm always writing about things popping out of the darkness and making away with innocents. However, I have my soft side. I wrote the following bit of flash fiction many years back. I thought I would share it with you, although I wish I had remembered in time for Valentines Day. Here it is, in podcast form. 

Thursday, February 16, 2012

What's Not To Hate?

Writers love to write about writing. I think it's a defense against the Sisyphus Syndrome, the feeling that you are forever rolling a giant rock uphill and accomplishing nothing. And we love the romantic image of the author and do our best to present that image where possible. But let's stop for a minute and celebrate things we hate about writing. Really hate.

1) Hours of Lonely Toil 
Yep. That's romantic. Sitting at the computer, trying not to get sucked into the distractions of all the cool stuff online, and realizing that while I am struggling to make something happen, the world is having "the-best-time-ever!!!" just outside my window.
2) Rejection and Critique
Who doesn't love getting rejection letters? And if the impersonal rejection isn't enough for you, how about those critique sessions in a writers' group. What? Some of you are in groups where people pat you on the back and tell you how extraordinary you are? I've heard those exist, but...
3) Money!
Yeah, I know. We all wanna be Stephen King. I wrote a short story and sold it for fifty bucks. That may not seem like a lot, but hey. So, if I spent twelve total hours on the story writing and re-writing, then I made 4.16 cents an hour. That's below minimum wage. And if I average into that amount all the other stories I've worked on and never sold, then I figure I end up owing about ten thousand dollars to Barnes and Noble, just for the privilege of dreaming of being on a shelf somewhere.
4) The Disposable World
Alas, memories are short. If you published once, you better publish again. And just because they loved you Monday, it doesn't mean they'll love you Tuesday. The marketplace changes. You better keep your ear to the ground and listen for the sound of advancing change. If your book is on a shelf somewhere, and if you were published by a small press, then the chances of that book lasting on that shelf more than a month or two before the book store sends it back to the publisher is slim. Hey! What have you done for me lately!
5)The Illusion of Fame
So, you're published, and maybe you get a handful of reviews that are favorable. Maybe on Amazon, or Goodreads. Maybe someone will say something nice about you on a blog. In the end, it's you and the keyboard. You're not a baseball player hearing the crowd roar over a home run. You're not a rock star with groupies beating the crap out of one another to touch your sweaty brow. You're not a crazy politician with a fanatical following who scream your name as a form of argument.  You're---you. Just you. And even if you realize some of your major goals, you'll pretty much just be lucky to occasionally be invited to a few things and have some fans say a few nice things about you.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Presto--The Writer As Magician

I've seen people struggle when sitting in audience as a magician performs works of wonder. They feel perhaps that something is being put over on them, that they are the butt of a joke. Others feel that magic is for children, and that illusion is below them. Me? I sit in awe and delight.

Writing is like that, isn't it? A good read asks the reader to suspend disbelief. We then watch things unfold and coincidences or behaviors which would never fly in real life are accepted as a necessary device to let the characters develop and the plot unfold. And the more we are drawn in and the more we care about the characters, the more defined our suspension of disbelief.

The best writing is like the best magic trick. It begins simply and is inviting. Misdirection serves to keep the eye away from the craft behind the scenes. The reader absorbs symbolism, subtext, and metaphor almost at the subliminal level. Perhaps some writers demand more of a reader. Perhaps their plots twist, their characters are more complex and contradictory, and the prose requires patience and reader involvement.

In the end the goal is the same--- to touch the reader. To have the reader revel in the reveal.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Upcoming Anthology

Why publish a for the love ebook anthology? First, it's a chance to expand a bit and see how it feels. Second, as a cancer survivor, I like the idea of doing something for charity. I would have raised money for prevention of sexual and physical abuse (maybe next time), but the subject and the name of the anthology just didn't seem right -- Weird Arousals.

I also liked the idea of not doing a traditional genre collection. The other editor is Joe Ponepinto, who works for the L.A. Review, and  is primarily a literary author. Strangely, our sensibilities and literary philosophies blend. This promises to be a fascinating eclectic  mix of fiction!

The call for submission --

For The Love...

Weird Arousals is an ebook anthology of short fiction that deals with sexuality and the human condition in all its strange, mystifying and sometimes evil incarnations. We are seeking submissions of short stories between 2,000 and 7,000 words, in the following genres: horror, fantasy, slipstream, steampunk, paranormal or any other recognized speculative fiction category. Stories should be strong on character as well as plot. No straight romance. No slasher stories, no porn, no excessive gore.

Deadline for submissions is April 30, 2012 or until filled. Publish date is anticipated to be September 2012. Simultaneous submissions will be accepted as long as you tell us up front (and immediately withdraw the story if you sell it). All proceeds from the sale of this "for-the-love" ebook anthology will go to cancer research. Send inquiries to Stewart Sternberg at