Nailing with hammer

I’ve read a few short stories in my time. How many hundred, it’d be hard to say. Having written my own short stories and having read so many written by other people, it is pretty clear to me that the hardest aspect of short story writing is nailing the beginning. If I had to make a wild-ass guess, I’d say maybe 3% of writers know how to start a short story.

This is going to be a lengthy post because, frankly, it’s something I’m super passionate about. What I cover here is probably the number one issue that makes me, as an editor, want to stop reading a submission.

Invariably, authors fall into three categories:

  1. Those who start writing BEFORE their story has actually begun.
  2. Those who start writing AFTER their story has actually begun (much rarer, in my opinion); and
  3. Those who begin writing at the start of their story.

I’ll get back to these categories a bit later on.

So what, or when, is the start of the story?

I’ve often heard people say “Start the story as close to the end as possible”. This was certainly one of the 8 pieces of advice the great Kurt Vonnegut has given. I guess this makes a kind of sense, but, personally, it never seemed particularly actionable advice to me as I always found it to be interminably vague. How does someone really know where the end of the story is when they’re just starting to write the dang thing? Hell, if you believe that guff about “Pansters and Plotters”, then probably 50% of people don’t even know what the end of their story will be when they start writing.

One might, of course, argue that this is a form of editing advice, more than it is writing advice. I.e the author should write the story and then return to the beginning and pare things back until they reach the true start of the story. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose—but for the newer writer who still has no idea how to determine the true start of the story, of what value is it to them?

Over time, mostly because I’ve always found it comparatively easier to determine, I’ve started to consider the true beginning of the story to be the “Inciting Incident”.

An explanation of the Inciting Incident excerpted from NarrativeFirst.com:

The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory (emphasis mine); everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

Mark Morris, editor of the Spectral Book of Horror Stories vol 1 & vol 2, whose collection Wrapped in Skin was recently published by ChiZine Publications, says:

I guess if I think about it I always start a short story from the very first incident of that story. So for instance, in my story The Name Game, which is set entirely at a dinner party in which my protagonists, a husband and wife, are meeting their new neighbours for the first time, I started the story with the couple knocking on the door of their hosts’ house – and then any background stuff which is relevant (e.g. they’ve just moved in to their new house) will become apparent through dialogue or short, explanatory sentences attached to either an action or a piece of dialogue which pushes the story forward.

I recently had a great chat with Anthony Rivera, publisher and editor at Grey Matter Press, and after prefacing his comments with the statement that there is no one right way to start a story, he said:

It’s possible to write an effective short story in a number of ways and how it “starts” depends on the piece itself — slow burn or whatever. But, if one is looking to grab the reader’s attention quickly, I would agree with your Inciting Incident approach. I might even go one step beyond and say, if possible (which of course it’s not always, nor does the strategy lend itself to every short story), start in the middle of said “incident”.

Ansen Dibell, aka Nancy Ann Dibble, science fiction writer and a former editor of Reader’s Digest, mentions in her book Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: In the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it is one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning if you let it.

That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene.

Richard Thomas (editor, author of several novels and collections, including the collection Tribulations from Crystal Lake Publishing, says in his article on dramatic structure:

This is where the story begins. It is your narrative hook, the tip of the iceberg, early hints at theme, character, setting—and if done right, the conflict. This is where your Inciting Incident happens, that moment in time where the story really begins, that tipping point beyond which things will never be the same. Whether your story is a straight line, a circle coming round, or some other structure, you have to start someplace. As mentioned in previous columns, starting in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things,” is a great way to grab your audience’s attention. You are setting the stage here, so paint a picture, give us the backdrop, and start the thread (or threads) that will run through your narrative. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stopped reading a story because the opening paragraph was random, boring, or confusing.

Personally, I often think of the Inciting Incident not necessarily as a problem or necessarily a direct challenge that protagonist is faced with, but more of an “event”. The Event (as I like to think of it)  may be immediately problematic or challenging to the protagonist, or the challenge/problem/change that it sparks may be less obvious and not immediately apparent. This is where I believe the quote from NarrativeFirst.com is  actually so brilliant. If you view “exciting” with the meaning “to arouse, to stir up” rather than “to make happy and eager” then this quote makes perfect sense. The Inciting Incident is like someone (or some thing!) plunging into a body of water, stirring the sediment off the pond floor. Until that Event occurred, the water was calm, still and clear. Thus the purpose of the The Event is to create movement, or as I call it elsewhere, Locomotion.

For me, thinking of the Inciting Incident as The Event is extremely useful. When I think of an “incident” (or incitement, for that matter!) I immediately think of something that has gone wrong, something terrible, an emergency, overt conflict. The start of your story is not necessarily terrible; is not necessarily something going wrong; is not necessarily over conflict. There start of your story, however, is an event of one kind or another though. Thinking of it in this way widens the scope so that the starts of the story is no longer only about the explosion or gun going off, but rather the start may be any event of true plot importance. This then opens wide the possibilities for slow-burn stories as well as tales that grip you by the short and curlies form the first line.

What is the result of completely missing The Event—or worse, having no Event at all?

When the beginning of a story strays too far from the Inciting Incident, stories tend to fall into either Category 1 or 2 mentioned earlier.

For Category 1 beginnings, the authors have begun writing before their story has actually begun. In this case, everything before that incident is backstory, a form of prologue, which in the short story world can be a kiss of death for the reader (especially the editor you’re submitting your story to). I somewhat snarkily refer to this as “The Pre-Incident Waffle”.  Quite often those authors guilty of Pre-incident Waffle are also offenders of the crime of The Post-Incident Waffle, as well.

Generally speaking, starting close to, or at, The Event will also ensure the story is a memorable one for casual readers and fans. It will be an interesting story that is immediately going places and will encourage readers to continue reading and keep turning those pages.

In another piece, I talk about “Locomotion” and use a freight train as analogy for a story. Backstory is just that, back story. Back story is missing the train. It may be interesting information but doesn’t advance the plot of the actual story you’re trying to tell at all. Think about it—you jump in a train expecting to go forward to your destination, not backwards for a few stops before it starts moving forward once more!

For Category 2 beginnings, as mentioned previously, the author has begun writing AFTER their story has begun. This is actually the more disastrous of the two categories, in my opinion.

When a story has no Inciting Incident, when that initial event that is meant to upset the humours of your protagonist, or present them with a challenge, or push them into action, or cause to step out into the wide world, doesn’t exist—it risks becoming a sequence of events that happen for no reason; or a series of events that just unfold (see: slice of life or vignette). We live in a world of cause and effect. When something happens to us, we respond to it. Our circumstances change. Our story begins to evolve and write itself. Whether we consciously know this or not, we know it at a subconscious level. When you come across a story where that conflict was merely alluded to, or worse still, absent… there is no cause and effect. There is no conflict or incident, no response by the protagonist, no push that propels your story train forward along the tracks.

Category 3 beginnings have the author starting close to, at, or during the Inciting Incident. This means that from virtually the moment the reader begins with the tale, that plot is moving forward. From here on in, your story might be a slow burn to the heavens (or hells), or it might be a rollercoaster ride, but either way, your reader is locked in from the get-go.

To conclude, by way of cautionary advice, I’d like to share some advice from Nick Mamatas. For those who don’t know him, Nick is a former editor of the speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld; is the editor of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Haikasoru; and is an author of various short stories and collections, and novels such as the forthcoming I Am Providence (pre-order it here). The following advice from is his collection of essays Starve Better. I’ll interject here and there in bold where I think he’s touching on something I’ve talked about:

The cult of advice has misled many a short story writer. Here’s an insidious piece of advice you’ve surely heard before: Your short story has to start strong, with a hook.

On one level, it isn’t even bad advice. Often, writers do just sit down and start writing. They have no idea how to begin a story, so they often begin at the beginning—with their protagonist waking up. Or perhaps with a lengthy bit of scene-setting, or the weather (Simon: literally the two most common bad starts to a story, in my opinion) or a snippet from a historical artifact or newspaper article. Pages and pages of background information, or the results of research, or tooling around with breakfast foods, keep the reader from getting to the story for pages and pages(Simon:  I think this what I call the “Pre-Incident Waffle”). The most common variations are especially deadly—I once had a streak of five stories in a row that featured a protagonist awaking confused in a strange room. Even if the fifth story was actually very good and absolutely required such an opening, I was already poisoned by its competitors. (Don’t fret, though; I walked my dog and came back to the fifth story after a short break. It was terrible.)

The flaw of the “Gotta have a hook!” advice is that it leads to a secondary error on the part of many writers. Having heard that new writers tend to have a few pages of nonsense up front and that stories have to be engaging from the get-go, they often create an energetic first paragraph full of gun fights, monsters, characters cursing (“Fuuuuck!” or “Oh SHIT!” are very common story openings these days), and various other “hooks.” Then, almost invariably, the author reveals that the gunfights are on TV, the monsters from a dream, the cursing character has woken up with a back spasm or is simply stuck in traffic (indeed, “stuck in traffic” might be the new “just woken up”) and then we have the several pages of nonsense before the story actually begins (Simon: I think this is what I refer to elsewhere as the “Post-Incident Waffle”). Rather than correcting the error of a boring beginning by eliminating the boring beginning or by changing the story’s structure so that it is interesting from beginning to end, they simply added some “action” up top.

I believe this advice from Nick is cogent and gels pretty well with my own beliefs on the matter, in that it advises the writer to eliminate the boring beginning and move to the start of the story and once that start is found, to eliminate the following pages of garble that are so common afterwards. Nick also makes a great point that the opening of the story need not be a string of explosions or curse words; rather, as I’ve stated previously, it should be The Event.

I am very pleased to say I’ve sold my story “Music Box” to the forthcoming Creepy Campfire Quarterly  Issue #6 from EMP Publishing. The anthology is edited by Jennifer Word and issue #6 is due April 2017.

CCQ _1-Front_Cover-jpeg (1).jpg

A new market, CCQ seems to be doing some interesting things, and they seem quite open minded about the kind of horror they enjoy and accept, which provides some opportunity for writers of more ‘extreme’ fiction.  I approve!

My story “Music Box” features naughty kids,  misunderstood teachers, Indian Mynah birds, heavy metal music, and Mariah Carey.

And I promise you, it’s true.

 

SiD 2 Title2

Hi folks,

To celebrate the impending release of Suspended in Dusk 2, Books of the Dead Press have decided to give a free ebook copy of Suspended in Dusk 2 – upon release – to anyone who writes an Amazon.com review of Suspended in Dusk between October 29 2015 and the time of the SiD 2 release.  All readers need to do is email Books of the Dead Press (besthorror@gmail.com) and let us know which review is yours.

Suspended in Dusk 2 is in final stages of editing and should be released in the next couple of months.

You can find it here on Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Suspended-Dusk-Ramsey-Campbell/dp/1927112443/

Thanks – and feel free to share,

Simon Dewar

www.booksofthedeadpress.com 

BotD - logo

good times

The last couple of weeks have been interesting with all the goings-on regarding RJ Cavender, PS Gifford, HWA and the traumatic podcast by Brian Keene with guest Kelly Laymon, and posts by authors such as Tim Waggoner, and author/editor Michael Bailey.

I’ve checked out on all of that, seriously struggling to give a fuck about any of it beyond a generalised and helpless kind of sadness and concern for Kelly Laymon and the other affected victims of sexual assault and fraud.  Whether people are being nice or naughty, treating each other well or poorly, whether they’re having fun or not, whether they’re being successful or failing… It’s freaking great to not know about it, and more importantly to not give a fuck about it either.

monkees

A corollary of that is, I’m taking a well-deserved break from social media.

man

I’m not quite The Man who Walked Away from Facebook (no one has stolen my horse yet!!), however stepping off the merry-go-round has allowed me to become far more productive.  I’m aware of some things that are going on in the horror/writing world and am maintaining some level of contact with some people. If you feel you need to speak to me, email me.

Note: I have no updates on the RJ Cavender scandal.  No further news from Indiegogo than that they’re investigating whether the campaigns. RJ Cavender’s Indiegogo campaign site are still live. I have received no word from Stanley Hotel or Winchester mystery house and no response to the long emails I sent both.  Well, I threw that shit at the wall and it seems like nothing has actually stuck, so I’ve turned my attention to other things which are more interesting and better for my mental health.

In the last week:

  1. I’ve sent edits to 3 authors for Suspended in Dusk 2.  I have a small number of edits left before proof reading begins and I finally compile the final manuscript and send it to Books of the Dead Press.
  2. I have sent three lots of edits, and 1 manuscript assessment and suggested markets for story submission, to people who bought edits out of the StokerCon or Bust fundraising campaign for Marni Molina.  Marni is probably at Las Vegas or landing there now, ready to enjoy a weekend away, maybe learn some things, catch up with old friends, network with new ones.
  3. I have written several thousand words of an essay on nailing the start of a new short story.  The essay will be published in the next few weeks and will include quotes from some fantastic authors and editors and my own general spin on things.
  4. I have received my royalty statements letting me know that I’m still selling roughly 750 (mostly ebook) copies of Suspended in Dusk a quarter.  This is encouraging because, I’m quite proud of that book; there’s lots of great stories in there; I’m very happy that some of the less established authors are getting “exposure” (heh.) to a wide reading audience via my book—one that was released in 2014! (Note: The publisher did also pay them money.)
  5. I feel like I’ve levelled up a bit with my editing or have certainly attained a greater amount of confidence, especially in asking authors to make changes that I feel are necessary for a story. Ultimately, this is good for both me and the authors.

I’m super pleased with this new direction and I’m happy that Suspended in Dusk 2 is moving more swiftly towards its final published state.

Good times, great (lack of social media) company.

The eBook for Tribulations is now out with Cemetery Dance. – http://wp.me/ppag3-Ko

This should a fantastic read,  folks.

Hey folks,

One of the awesome writerly people I’ve met in recent weeks via facebook is none other than Kristin Dearborn. I picked up her latest release Woman in White and while I won’t be reviewing the novella, I was pleased to discover an author who was experimenting with story structure, and touching on serious issues (gender politics/patriarchy/domestic violence) while delivering it within the vehicle of a pulp horror tale.  Many thanks to Kristin for stopping by my blog for a quick chat!

Dearborn Head Shot

Kristin Dearborn

Q: You have a new novella out with DarkFuse Press.  It’s called Woman in White.  What is your favourite aspect or part of Woman in White?

KD: Woman in White was particularly fun to write. I got to blend a creature feature kind of campy vibe with feminist issues—especially domestic violence—which are near and dear to my heart. I think the juxtaposition works particularly well blending the “monster of the week” atmosphere with really powerful, flawed, female characters. I had a blast with Mary Beth, Angela, and Lee. I wanted to make the three of them imperfect in various ways: Angela is a domestic abuse victim who’s had an abortion. Mary Beth is overweight and more interested in video games than hunting or being a mom. Lee is career-focused and is sleeping with a married man. These complexities made them fascinating to spend time with in my head.

Q. So in WIW…the mayhem that is going on… is this just a vengeance on the bad men of the town, with a few innocents caught in between, or is there a deeper statement here about patriarchy in general?  Was this a conscious theme you set out to write on or something that developed organically for you?

KD: The idea of Woman in White was inspired by the plight of the male angler fish, specifically as described by a cartoon written by The Oatmeal. The male angler fish, for those of you who won’t click the link and read the cartoon, has a really shit deal. He’s tiny and weak and spends his entire life searching for a female angler fish, who lures him to her with terrifying, wonderful pheromones. He thinks she’s the most beautiful thing in the world even though in order to breed he winds up literally melding with her and losing every part of his identity. I wanted to create a monster that operated in a similar fashion, and in doing so, I found it impossible to avoid gender focused themes. I’m tired of seeing the same old story where a bunch of dudes save the day. I wanted the men in town to be the damsels in distress. In WIW, Jason is one of my favorite characters. In any other book, I’m pretty sure he would be the hero. I think I went easy on him, though…

Q. Do you find it easy to let a story go when it’s time to write “the end”, or even when it is published? 

KD: Honestly, and I feel like I lose author street cred points here, I don’t feel like I have a problem letting this stuff go. I’m well aware it can be tweaked to death, and I don’t want to do that. I think I err on the side of under-tweaking. I like to finish a draft, then let it sit for a while before I let myself or anyone else look at it. I’ll give it a go, send it along to some of my beloved beta readers, then, like a bird, set it free out into the world.

Q. Do you read your books once they’re published? (Simon: Once something of mine is in print, I can’t actually can’t bring myself to read it. It’s bizarre.)

KD: When I see my own work in print, it’s like every little flaw crawls off the page and boops me in the nose. It’s not the same with galleys, those always look great. That said, it’s pretty rad to see a thing I made out there in the world that people can hold in their hands.

Q. Do you find after publication that the creativity tanks have been drained? What do you do to fill them or recharge the creative battery?

KD: I find publication charges my batteries more than drains them. What gets me kinda down is the time when I’ve polished a manuscript (as much as I’m going to) and I’m starting to send it out. That’s not particularly energizing for me. I have a few tricks for my creative batteries: I have found NaNoWriMo a fun opportunity to just pour out something I don’t care about that gives me a chance to practice plotting, pacing, and production. I have never looked at one after the fact, just pump out the words, learn from the experience and forget it. The other thing I like to do is switching between short stories and novels or novellas. The thing that most recharges my creative juices, however, is the act of being in an environment with a bunch of other writers. The Seton Hill University Alumni Retreat in Greensburg, PA and NECON in Bristol, RI are the two I enjoy the most.

Q. You ride a motor bike – When did you get into bikes? I heard something about a rustbucket. Tell me more!

KD: When I graduated from college, I bought myself a non-functioning $600 motorcycle on Craigslist and got my motorcycle license. I was convinced I could teach myself how to fix it and learn to ride. That bike never moved. I was terrible at motorcycles, and kind of gave up on the whole thing. I referred to myself in that dark time as “the world’s least enthusiastic motorcycle enthusiast.” Fast forward three years to my moving to Vermont, where a former boss decided he was gonna sell me his motorcycle. We agreed on the price of one hundred US dollars. Former boss got the bike out of storage, checked it over, then let me know he could not, in good conscience, take any money for the thing. Thusly, I was given Rustbucket, a 1982 Yamaha Maxim 400. (Not to be confused with the Maxim 650 I had a few years later. That thing was a battle tank and I loved it dearly.)

KD1

Rustbucket!

After about a thousand bucks of repairs, I rode Rustbucket for a season, even though its functionality was dubious. Eventually it died and I sold it for $50. I’m now riding a 2013 Harley, and put on many thousand miles every summer (riding seasons are pretty short here in the frozen northland of Vermont). Last summer I survived an incident I’ve been fearing since I first started riding…the dreaded bee in the helmet. I’d always thought a bee in my helmet would just, like, make the bike spontaneously explode. Instead, I lifted my visor and shooed the flying hypodermic needle away and didn’t even stop. Simon shouldn’t have asked about this because I could talk about motorcycles FOREVERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR.

KD2

Q: What new or forthcoming books are on your radar? Whose work are you loving right now? 

KD: I’m super super pumped for Joe Hill’s Fireman, Bracken Macleod’s Stranded (I’m a sucker for a wintery story), and Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock. Right now I’m in the middle of Stephen King’s most recent short story collection Bazaar of Bad Dreams. I don’t think it’s got quite the same teeth as Skeleton Crew or Night Shift, but still pretty dang good. Other things I’m pretty into at the moment are James S. A. Corey’s Expanse series. Space opera goodness.

Q. What are your goals in the year or two ahead for your own writing?  Got any story markets you’re trying to crack, or working on a novel or collection or are you working on novel etc? 

KD: I have a couple novels up my sleeve. One with a finished first draft that needs some serious grooming and polishing, one halfway finished, and one in the larval idea stages. It’s all about getting the butt in the chair and producing some words


 

Check the synopsis below and fantastic praise of Kristin’s Woman in white \ and click the cover image to visit Amazon and pick up a copy!

woman_in_white-2

Synopsis

Rocky Rhodes, Maine.

As a fierce snowstorm descends upon the sleepy little town, a Good Samaritan stops to help a catatonic woman sitting in the middle of the icy road, and is never seen or heard from again. When the police find his car, it is splattered in more blood than the human body can hold.

While the storm rages on, the wave of disappearances continue, the victims sharing only one commonality: they are all male. Now it’s up to three young women to figure out who or what is responsible: a forensic chemist, a waitress struggling with an abusive boyfriend, and a gamer coping with the loss of her lover.

Their search will lead them on a journey filled with unspeakable horrors that are all connected to a mysterious Woman in White.

Praise

“Horror born straight from a nor’easter, Dearborn’s Woman in White is a great read for a winter night—with a monster I’ll never forget.” —Christopher Irvin, author of Federales and Burn Cards

“Kristin Dearborn’s Woman in White is a rip-roaring monster tale with sharp-eyed characterization and something to say about the power dynamics between men and woman. Thought-provoking and entertaining as hell!” —Tim Waggoner, author of Eat the Night

“Great stuff! Suspenseful, quickly paced, unpredictable and wonderfully evil tale. Kristin Dearborn’s best yet!” —Jeff Strand, author of Pressure

SiD 2 Title2

Hi everyone,

I’ve been waiting for a while release the table of contents for Suspended in Dusk 2 but all the contracts are in and my hands have been unshackled.  There were a couple of changes to the line up. Unfortunately, Mercedes Yardley and Nikki Guerlain wont be joining us due to other commitments. I do very much hope to work with them both soon on future projects.  As sad as that is, there are some fantastic new additions to the line up whose work I am thrilled to be including in the anthology.

So, without further ado, and in no particular order,…

Suspended in Dusk 2 – Table of Contents

  1. Introduction by Angela Slatter
  2. Deadman’s Road by Joe R. Lansdale
  3. The Mournful Cry of Owls by Christopher Golden
  4. The Immortal Dead by JC Michael
  5. That Damned Cat by Nerine Dorman
  6. Another World by Ramsey Campbell
  7. Angeline by Karen Runge
  8. Mother of Shadows by Benjamin Knox
  9. Love is a Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching by Stephen Graham Jones
  10. Crying Demon by Alan Baxter
  11. The Sundowners by Damien Angelica Walters
  12. Still Life with Natalie by Sarah Read
  13. Riptide by Dan Rabarts
  14. Dealing in Shadows by Annie Neugebauer
  15. There’s no light between floors by Paul Tremblay

Editing continues apace and I’m looking forward to receiving some cover art soon, which I’ll no doubt share in due course!

This book features a few Easter eggs for readers too:

Mother of Shadows by Benjamin Knox is a continuation of the story from the original Suspended in Dusk anthology, A Keeper of Secrets. Ben and I worked hard to ensure it reads very fine as its own standalone tale, but readers of the first anthology should be enjoy the continuation of this story.

In what is becoming a Suspended in Dusk tradition, I’ve included a story which is dark yet also quite humorous, Nerine Dorman’s That Damned Cat.

Lastly,  there are several fantastic art pieces by the incredibly talented artist Aaron Dries,  which will appear exclusively in the paperback version of the anthology.

I am very happy with how this book is shaping up and I know there will be something for all horror readers and readers of dark fiction within these pages.

 

Simon Dewar

 

 

RJ Cavender quits the HWA after people take objection to him not providing editing work they’d paid him to do 1.5 years earlier  –  

In early 2015, I signed up for the Stanley Hotel Writer’s Retreat and was really looking forward to attending. Jack Ketchum was going and he had written the introduction for my debut anthology, Suspended in Dusk, so I wanted to meet him, thank him, shake his hand and get him to sign a copy for me. I was dreading looking like a crazy fanboi, but was looking forward to the challenge.  I was also looking forward to many of the other attendees.

As part of the registration for the retreat, you could pay varying amounts to purchase an editing package from RJ Cavender (apparently, his real name is actually: Randy Joe Huff. Thanks Robert Wilson!) who was hosting the event.   Before I registered I was warned by a friend that RJ Cavender was extremely slow to provide edits and they would not recommend purchasing a novel edit package from him. That sounded like a reasonable warning, but as I’m not a novelist (yet) anyway, I figured I’d purchase a short story edit package. As someone relatively new to the horror genre scene, I was under the impression that RJ was some sorta, over-worked rock star editor and this would explain why he might be a little slow on the edits.

In the months that followed from when I registered for the 2015 retreat,  one colleague, a HWA member, began to confide further in me regarding issues she was having with RJ Cavender. He was not returning her novel edits. Months went by and the poor lady repeatedly prompted RJ to provide the edits and she was repeatedly assured that the edits were coming and it would not be long now.

I was unable to attend the 2015 retreat due to family matters that arose in the lead up to October. I contacted RJ Cavender and asked him if he would transfer my registration to 2016 instead. He agreed to do this.  This was still good in my mind, I’d have a chance to meet cool and talented people like current HWA President Lisa Morton, Chuck Palahniuk [Author of Fight Club, Haunted, etc], Shane McKenzie [Horror and Bizarro author whose story Fit Camp I reprinted in Suspended in Dusk] and Michael Bailey [author and editor extraordinaire]. I did not submit a story to RJ for editing, and figured that I would do this in 2016 around the time of the retreat,  as I always have a story or two lying around or in various stages of the submission process. The aforementioned  colleague however was still experiencing delays and what really was beginning to look like the old fashioned run-around on her edits.

About a month ago now, two things happened:
1.  This colleague received a HWA mentor who began working with her to address issues with her novel, thus completely abrogating any need she had for edits from RJ.

2.  We began to ask the question of other attendees:  Did you pay for edits and have you received them?  Colleagues and friends began to confide in us as well. They were in two categories:

•  Group 1: People who had submitted work to RJ Cavender at the 2014 retreat but had not received edits. One of these people had purchased two editing packages from both the 2014 and 2015 retreats and had *NOTHING* to show. This poor writer had given RJ Cavender hundreds of dollars for edits she didn’t have. These people had been badgering RJ for roughly 1.5 years and repeatedly met with a changing of goal posts. There was never any scope to refund monies on the basis that RJ could not perform the work as expected.

•  Group 2:  People who had paid for edits from RJ Cavender but had not provided him with manuscripts because they had heard from others that he was not returning work/providing the service he’d been paid for and they didn’t feel comfortable giving their work to him.   (Note: As it turns out, their reluctance to do so was vindicated.).  In addition the feeling was unanimous that these authors did not have established careers or reputations and did not want to make waves with someone was the acquisitions editor at a respected small press (Dark Regions Press).  Kerri-Leigh Grady makes some fantastic points about THAT issue here on her blog, by the way.

In total I knew 6 people (including myself) who were in one of these two categories. There are likely more.

I’m not a HWA member, but I was very concerned about the treatment of these members. The people who had provided work to RJ 1.5 years ago were getting the run around, and the people who hadn’t provide work and wouldn’t press him for a refund out of fear, stood to lose significant amounts of money, not to mention all the time and emotional stress expended on the issue.

I was slightly less concerned about myself as I am blessed to be financially stable – but, on principle, I was not happy knowing that it was extremely unlikely that RJ Cavender could make good on the edits that I’d paid him for.  I know one of the affected HWA members has barely has two dimes to rub together at the moment and could really use the money. A few hundred bucks in the hip pocket wouldn’t go astray right now, I’m sure. As for the others, the sheer amount of money owed ($200/$500/$700 etc) made the paltry sum I stood to lose on edits by RJ Cavender look dwarfed by comparison.  It was at this point I decided that the best course of action was to do two things.

1. Refer the other people who are HWA members to the HWA Grievance Committee, chaired by Brett J. Talley.
2. As a non-HWA member, to email Lisa Morton and recount the history and let her know a bunch of grievances from actual members would be coming through.

I didn’t think that either my actions or the lodging of grievances by those affected were particularly outrageous. On the grounds that RJ hadn’t returned the work of those who had provided him some in 1.5 years and everyone else knowing that if they had, they still wouldn’t have theirs either, there didn’t really seem to be any other choice.

I don’t have firm details about what exactly transpired next.  Lisa Morton advised that she would seek a list of all those who had bought packages from RJ Cavender and advice from him as to what work was outstanding. I went to sleep that night and woke up and the HWA had severed all official ties with RJ Cavender, RJ had been removed from any role with StokerCon 2016 and RJ had quit the HWA.  I’ll take his word at face value you that he quit and was not expelled from the organisation, but the whole thing really did come across as a “YOU CAN’T FIRE ME, I QUIT!” diva meltdown.

RJ then went on to make an official statement. The TL:DR of it is that he’s sick, woe is him, he’s so fucking hard done by, he was totally gonna do that work you could all totally take his word on that, and HWA are all a bunch of poopyheads.  (Props to Paul Mannering for the last part).

As many of you may or may not know, I’ve been very ill over the last year-and-a-half. Because of my continued and chronic sickness I’ve gotten very behind on my editing work. And because I’ve had several author complaints to the Horror Writers Association Grievance Committee this week, I’ve now been taken off the StokerCon2016 event…one I’ve worked tirelessly on for the last couple of years. And while I do feel horrible that I’ve let many authors down, I am catching up on my work and I do believe my editing is the best it has ever been…I’m just working at a slower rate, because I’m not well and I’m not working at the break-neck pace I was able to over the last decade of my professional editing career. To those authors, I am very sorry…and I am working on catching up, I really am. I’ve never not finished a project, I’ve never bailed on my side of an editing agreement. I wouldn’t be working in this industry still if I had, trust me.

Suffice to say, I’m saddened by this decision on the part of the HWA. Not only because I won’t get to see so many of my friends next month in Vegas, but also because I’ve put my blood, sweat, tears and fears into StokerCon2016 from its early plotting phases with Rocky Wood, to the creation of Horror University (my idea), The Scholarship from Hell (mine, too), and The Lucky Thirt3en Horror Short Film Competition (ditto.) I’ve organized the pitch sessions, I’ve secured guests we’ve never had included at any HWA event or World Horror to date. I’ve created local authors events via the HWA at a book festival here in Tucson and I’ve been very involved with the organization for many, many years now. So punishment of this sort, at least to me, seems unfair and unjust treatment, especially when I’ve not even been told who the authors are who are lining up to complain about me…as the Grievance Committee is operating under some code of secrecy I cannot figure out. I mean, how do you take care of clients who are pissed…if you don’t know who they are? And how can I be expected to catch up on work when I’m being overloaded with more of it via the event and all this needless back-and-forth with the organization and this pointless committee?

So that’s why I’ve decided to leave the Horror Writers Association. They’re a good organization and they do a lot of great things in the community, but they didn’t have my back when I needed it most. Perhaps I’m not ‘sick enough’…or perhaps they just didn’t believe I could get caught up on my overdue projects by next month and were afraid there would be some backlash at the event. Which, let’s face it…they don’t really want/need or know how to handle at this point. I’m not sure.

But taking an event away from me like this is unacceptable punishment. I’m not a child who needs to be ‘taught a lesson.’ And I feel not only let down by the organization but betrayed and bewildered and goddamn upset, if you want to know the truth. Somehow I’ve become the worst thing to happen to the horror genre…when what we’re dealing with here is a person who’s had some very personal, physical, painful issues just functioning and getting out of bed each day…but an editor who is also quite determined to make right with my authors, finish up overdue projects in turn, but has had nothing but harassment and stress from the HWA over the last few weeks, additional stress and anxiety I did not need at this point. The sort of treatment that no one should tolerate or suck up, no matter who they’re working for (or in this case, volunteering for) under any circumstances. So, I’m through with the HWA. Again…I’m sorry to any authors I’ve let down, I’ll have your work finished to my standards as soon as I’m able to send them out. I’ll have plenty of time now, as I won’t be included in the event next month.

And to the HWA, I’m sorry…shit happens sometimes, people get sick, life’s a bitch. But if this is how you treat one of your biggest supporters, someone who has stood by through the good and bad, been a cheerleader for the organization, helped create  content and events and scholarships…then I don’t want to be part of that sort of organization. People aren’t disposable, and I was of a lot more use within the organization that as an outsider. I still think you do good things, but I also know you can turn on a dime…and when someone is no longer of use to you, when the shit gets real…you’re going to bail, because you don’t really care at all. Because avoiding public scandal, embarrassment, or ridicule is much more important than taking care of your own. And in an organization of 1300 people, I know I made a difference. And I’ll continue to do so. Just without the HWA. Thanks for listening, guys. I’ll be seeing you around…

I’d like to address some of the points the points made in his farewell speech.  I’ll comment on what I can comment on, but will not comment on the internal workings of the Grievance Committee or on HWA’s discussions with RJ because I’m not privy to either:

  1. Admission he was “very behind”  on his work

RJ Cavender: As many of you may or may not know, I’ve been very ill over the last year-and-a-half. Because of my continued and chronic sickness I’ve gotten very behind on my editing work

Look…. I have chronic Illness.  I have chronic psoriasis and, as a result, have arthritis through much of my body . I live on various immunosuppressant medications to treat it (fantastic drugs they give to cancer patients) and an array of anti-inflammatory and painkiller medications.  On top of that I have mental health issues (not exactly rare these days either) and take various medications for those issues.  I understand chronic illness and I understand chronic pain. What I don’t get is anyone using it as an excuse for not providing a service to someone who PAID THEM 1.5 YEARS AGO.   For many professionals, a couple of weeks is ‘very behind’. A couple of months is ‘very behind’. Almost a couple of years is beyond the pale. When someone pays you large sums of money for a service, you either perform the service in a timely fashion, you subcontract someone to perform the service to the same standard or you return their money.  It’s that simple. I do not consider chronic illness an excuse.  Sorry Randy – you can’t pull that card with me, asshole.

Beyond that, I don’t believe RJ when he says that chronic illness was his actual excuse.  If he was so far behind in his editing from the 2014 retreat no less,  Why did he take on editing customers from the 2015 retreat as well? Why did he start additional retreats (Winchester Mystery House) and take on additional editing customers from that retreat?  Why was he, only a week or so ago, advertising on the StokerCon Facebook group soliciting new freelance editing clients?

RJ Cavender

2.  Several Authors had complained and HWA took action

And because I’ve had several author complaints to the Horror Writers Association Grievance Committee this week, I’ve now been taken off the StokerCon2016 event…one I’ve worked tirelessly on for the last couple of years.

5 authors complained, which, I understand, was in addition to existing names that the grievance committee already had.

What I don’t get here is his shock the HWA would expect him to service his paid customers over volunteer work in their organisation, particularly when the Stanley Retreat where these customers signed up for RJ’s services has events their sponsored by HWA, most attendees were fellow HWA members, and the HWA president was to be a guest of honour this year?

What I don’t get is why, if he cant even service his paid customers, was he even doing volunteer work at all? Surely the correct thing to do would be to say “Y’know what, I would love to help the HWA with this cool idea for StokerCon…. but I’ve already taken these people’s money… so I’m gonna do my job for them first/instead”.

3. He feels bad

RJ Cavender:   And while I do feel horrible that I’ve let many authors down,

Yes he has let many authors down.  I’m unconvinced he actually feels horrible about it at all. If it was a few months maybe. If he wasn’t doing his level best to hoover in as many new paying customers as he could find,  all the while not delivering to existing customer he’d already taken money from, maybe. So I’m calling bullshit on this as well.

4.  IT WAS ALL RJ

 RJ Cavender:  I’ve put my blood, sweat, tears and fears into StokerCon2016 from its early plotting phases with Rocky Wood, to the creation of Horror University (my idea), The Scholarship from Hell (mine, too), and The Lucky Thirt3en Horror Short Film Competition (ditto.) I’ve organized the pitch sessions, I’ve secured guests we’ve never had included at any HWA event or World Horror to date. I’ve created local authors events via the HWA at a book festival here in Tucson and I’ve been very involved with the organization for many, many years now

Apparently it was all singlehandedly RJ Cavender. Infact, I wonder why it was called StokerCon instead of RJCon.

5.  He’s not sick enough for HWA

RJ Cavender:   So that’s why I’ve decided to leave the Horror Writers Association. They’re a good organization and they do a lot of great things in the community, but they didn’t have my back when I needed it most. Perhaps I’m not ‘sick enough’…or perhaps they just didn’t believe I could get caught up on my overdue projects by next month and were afraid there would be some backlash at the event. Which, let’s face it…they don’t really want/need or know how to handle at this point. I’m not sure.

No one believed RJ Cavender could get caught up on his work within a month.  No one. Not the aggrieved parties, not the HWA. Several people complained to me that RJ would forget details of their editing arrangements and they’d have to send him his own emails. In fact, most people aware of the issue or who were aggrieved parties involved wondered if he even knew all the people who had purchased packages from him.

As for being sick enough…that doesn’t even hold water.  Refer above to Point 1.

I think Nickolas Furr made a fantastic point on Monica J. O’Rourke‘s now infamous FB post when he said:

Nickolas Furr:  If he was too sick and frankly overwhelmed to do the edits he’s already been paid for, how does he have the time to spam every single group I’m in 80-90 times a day about every single upcoming writer’s retreat… and how does he have enough time to do all this (non-editing) work? Claiming that he’s been too busy with the HWA to avoid screwing over other writers is a pathetic game, and , even though I don’t know who’s gotten screwed, it pisses me off in a big way

6.  He’s not a child to be taught a lesson and is not the worst thing in the horror genre

RJ Cavender:  But taking an event away from me like this is unacceptable punishment. I’m not a child who needs to be ‘taught a lesson.’ And I feel not only let down by the organization but betrayed and bewildered and goddamn upset, if you want to know the truth. Somehow I’ve become the worst thing to happen to the horror genre…

Taking an event away from you? It’s not your fucking event, you’re a volunteer in an volunteer organisation. You’re one cog in a machine. You play your part and you get to help out. You don’t and you don’t.

You don’t need to be taught a lesson?  How many people do you need to defraud before you do, then?  How many rounds of grievances do you have to go through at the HWA (yes, we all know this isn’t the first time), before you stop acting like a charlatan?  The reality is, you’ve been conning people and now you’ve been called on it. We all know it. No on will go to your retreats any more. No one will pay for your editing services any more.  Game over, man.

As for being the worst thing in the horror genre……….. Right now, that’s EXACTLY WHAT YOU ARE.  And while I may or may not blog further about the allegations against you and the sick things you’ve done (In truth, some people would do a better job as they’re more conversant with the events that have transpired) that doesn’t change that you literally are one of the worst (if not the actual worst) thing in the horror genre right now.   Well done.

7.   Life’s a bitch

RJ Cavender: And to the HWA, I’m sorry…shit happens sometimes, people get sick, life’s a bitch.

If you were an actual man, or decent human being, you’d do the work you were paid for in a timely fashion, or give them their money back. Not whine on about how life is so fucking hard and you’re sick.  Everyone is sick. Everyone has lives. Everyone has commitments. You’re not a fucking special case.

No Randy Joe, you’re the bitch.

8. HWA is avoiding public scandal and not taking care of their own

RJ Cavender: Because avoiding public scandal, embarrassment, or ridicule is much more important than taking care of your own.

The HWA isn’t avoiding public scandal and isn’t not taking care of their own.  By taking firm action against you, they’re protecting their wider membership that you have been defrauding for several years now. They’re taking action against you to protect themselves from you pattern of fraudulent, unethical and damaging behaviour.  The HWA should be applauded, in particular President Lisa Morton who was incredibly receptive and open to hearing complaints and concerned by the serious complaints that were made about you, RJ.  The HWA comes out of this very well indeed. You however? Not so much.

————————

HWA Statement:

The HWA have released the following statement regarding RJ Cavender and his activities and the grievances regarding his dodgy editing practices.  I suspect it was so long coming as, as Hal Bodner has rightly pointed out on several occasions, they probably had to receive legal counsel and then get all members of the board of trustees to agree on the text.   If he doesn’t end up on Preditors and Editors and Writer’s Beware, he should, but let the following serve as warning to avoid this guy and his “services”:

hwa

——————————-

I don’t know if I’ll write a part 3 to this series, one that goes into the Sexual assault allegations against RJ Cavender and the alleged cover up of another incident by RJ Cavender.  Most of the information about it is spread across a lot of different threads and I’m not conversant with all the traumatic details.

I highly recommend everyone check out The Horror Show With Brian Keene as I believe Brian will be talking about this in great detail and following up on this issue in coming weeks.  In the meantime I would recommend reading the thread where these serious complaints were made and I would also recommend reading Wrath James White’s statement about that issue.

In conclusion, I’m really really glad that I took a stand against Randy Joe’s unethical, predatory and fraudulent behaviour. I’m glad I reported it. I’m glad I encouraged other affected authors to report it via their channel in the HWA. And, while I knew nothing of the other issues that have been going on, I’m super glad that the action HWA took in disassociating with RJ and his subsequent leaving of the organisation appears to have given Kelly Laymon and others the breathing space they needed to bring RJ’s more serious crimes into the light of day.

I will be referring this blog post to Writers Beware and Preditors and Editors and encouraging affected authors to submit corroborating evidence. I would hope that since the HWA is a sponsor of Writers Beware, their own official statement highlighting the bad practice of RJ will hold some weight.

 

 

White Supremacist on the Bram Stoker Award Jury – #RileyGate2016

The last few weeks have rocked the horror fiction community.  David A. Riley, posted on his blog that he was a  juror for the anthologies category of the Bram Stoker Awards. This lead to the discovery by some that  he was a  white supremacist.  I believe the issue was first noticed and raised by author Daniel Braum.  The horror community came out strongly on social media. There was a lot of “this is a slippery slope” arguments flying around and a lot of “You can disagree about a lot of things, but you have to draw the line at actual Nazis”.  Many called for him to be stood down. The HWA board decided that this type of action was not within their by laws and David Riley offered to step down which was accepted.  There was a lot of talk about this, and the event lead notable writer Brian Keene to sever all working ties with Horror Writers Association and HWA members over the incident. (Brian’s boycott itself was received with varying levels of support and ire within the horror community.)

The way I saw it was:

  1. Was David A. Riley a white supremacist/nazi?  Yes. A one time chapter leader of the National Front, there was evidence as recently as 2011 of him supporting white supremacy groups and racist ideology in blog post and comments on articles. Lots of people have written about it. (Refer to some of his statements here and here, and here.)
  2. Had he repudiated his views publicly?  No. By the time he’d offered to step down he’d started issuing various “but I bought something from a coloured person once”/”have a coloured friend” statements, but no actual repudiation of fascist or white supremacist ideology.
  3. Did Riley have any influence in the awards process whatsoever? Yes.
  4. Did his views them bring into question his ability to fulfil these duties without bias? Yes.
  5. Was his presence has a juror distracting from the award itself and bringing the award into disrepute?  Yes.

Personally, I was pretty pissed that David Riley was not stood down by the HWA, rather he (according to his own words) offered to step down and this was accepted. I think that’s a subtle distinction here that is important.  The HWA should’ve removed him from his office, if not because they disagree with his politics, if not because there was provable bias on his part – they should’ve done it on the basis that his continued position on the jury distracted and detracted from the awards and thus could not be continued.  I think Nick Mamatas made an interesting number of observations about the HWA’s ability/inability to do this.

I do have sympathy for HWA President Lisa Morton and the HWA Board generally on this particular issue which came out of left field. Most people know nothing about Riley even though his repugnant views had been highlighted a year previously when he was briefly involved and then fired from Weirdbook.  I also feel that given t his kind of issue had likely not occurred in recent years there was probably an lack of understanding on the part of the HWA Board on how to deal with such an incident.  I would like to note that I while I did not officially complain about David Riley to the HWA (Daniel Braum and Allyson Byrd et al had that well in hand), I did make a number of suggestions directly to Lisa Morton. These suggestions included a “root and branch” review of the Stoker tules and the HWA by-laws, so that they’re coherent and clearly give the HWA necessary powers to remove problematic people from committees and juries etc, with a minimum of fuss.   While I agree with Nick Mamatas that its a private volunteer org and the fact that roles were conferred upon people there is an implicit power to remove them from that role, etc…. It’ll all make it easier next time if this kinda stuff is clearly down in black and white.

Could this incident have been handled better by the HWA? Yes.  There should probably some analysis and discussion within the organisation about what is the best method to address issues and what is the best method by which to deliver those addresses and statements. Is social media he best place for that?

Do I hate on Lisa etc for perhaps bungling the matter slightly, particularly with the initial statement? No. People are human, with all that entails.  Having said that, it didn’t look like the board was really aware of all its options and it did not look good for the president to issue a statement that other board members characterised as inaccurate in comments under that statement.  Do I think that the statement seemed a bit hypocritical given the fact the HWA had launched a Diverse Works committee, aimed at highlighting the work of people of colour, LGBTI authors, etc? Yeah I couldn’t shake that feeling.

Was I outraged at amount of “slippery slope” / “free speech” / etc arguments made by a lot of people commenting on the thread?  Yes. It was particularly outraged. And blocked a few of them.

Do I find it encouraging that large numbers of people raised their voices and spoke about this issue? Yes that was great. I feel these voices fair outweighed those who would harbour a white supremacist in the name of free speech.

Is there room for improvement here (change to rules, bylaws, etc) and obvious things that can be done to prevent if rom happening again or to ease the resolution of an issue like this were it to happen again? Yes, and it’s up to the board to take action on that.

Am I hopeful that this wont happen again or that systems will be put in place to allow more effective and responsive governance in such another nightmare scenario?  I’m hopeful.

 

 

Stay tuned for Part II

 

 

SiD 2 Title2

I’m very pleased to announce that Dan Rabarts and Annie Neugebauer Tilton will be joining the TOC for Suspended in Dusk 2 with their stories, Riptide and Dealing in Shadows, respectively. Both their stories are gut wrenching and stood out from a crowd of over 200  submissions. Proud and excited to be working with them!!

More news coming shortly with the finalised TOC.

Stay tuned! 🙂