Posts Tagged ‘Jack Ketchum’

I’m walking to work, freezing my ass off in the morning chill, flicking through Facebook on my phone and thinking “Why horror?”. Ahead of me, pedestrians gather at the crossing—pre-morning-coffee men standing sullen in their suits and long trench coats; Women, slightly more composed in their lacquered nails and corporate war paint, leather knee-high boots and long, quilted coats.

This is not exactly unusual; I examine the “Why Horror” question on a semi-regular basis, despite thinking I have my answers down. This morning is a little different, however. I don’t pull out the usual trite “We read/write horror because it helps us to deal with the horrors of the real world” bollocks, which, although true enough, seems played out and tired. I don’t roll with the “We just like to scare ourselves. Us human beings get a real kick out of it” business, despite rightly enjoying the cheap thrill of controlled frisson as much as (or more than) the next person. It’s the loss of warmth in my phone hand as the circa 0-degree Celsius weather saps what little warmth is left from my poorly-circulated arthritic claw that causes my epiphany.

Horror fiction is not only about loss; ultimately, it’s about love.

Whut? I know, I know—allow me to join my nonsense-dots for you.

Let’s assume literature (or all art really), is—on some level—an attempt by humankind to explain, rationalise or comment on the world around us, or to an attempt to evoke or recreate emotion. We see this struggle for realisation and understanding it in the basic mythologies and creation myths. We see it in religious texts. We see it in the the works of philosophers and the socio-political commentary of books like 1984, Animal Farm, and Catch 22. We see it manifest in the commentary (feminist literary criticism, formalism, moral criticism, etc) and analysis of literature (What did the author mean when they said such and such? And even the legacy authors has left the world today…see: Lovecraft, Shakespeare, Rumi, et al). We see our emotions evoked via rousing tales of comedy, valour, drama, terror and love. Through this w of this we, as readers, come to know ourselves, our fellow humans and the world around us.

To be honest, on this frigid morning, hundreds of bleak Soviet-seeming metres away from my heated office, I’m a pretty selfish guy. I couldn’t care less how literature has performed that function historically, or how it does it today. Remember—It’s Monday morning, pre-9am. I’m pre-coffee, and I’m freezing my balls off in the fog by the traffic lights; this is all about me, mate. So “how does literature ‘do it’ for me?” I wonder as my bony blue-ing claw clamps rheumatically around my Motorola.

While there’s no hard and fast rules in the world of writing (indeed, perhaps the very best literature smashes, or at least subverts, the rules), it’s always seemed to me that certain genres of literature seemed to be purpose-built for certain things. Where literary fiction might be best suited to answering (or at least asking) timeless questions of life, and the human condition—science fiction seems geared to dealing with issues of morality, ethics surrounding societies and their development and implementation of technologies. And how it may all fit together (or fall apart!) sometime into the future. Fantasy, on the other hand, gives us the ‘Hero’s Journey’, riffs on good versus evil, allows us to imagine changing of the world for the better, and perhaps even allows us to indulge our complex modern thinking in a simple pre-modern setting (credit to Nick Mamatas for that last poignant observation). These are all important genres that often ask important questions or deal with important issues. Exciting and fun genres, even. But there’s something about them that, to me personally, seems so separate from my condition. At a basic level, something about them fails to speak to me-as-human-being, in a particularly profound way.

It’s 2016. Maybe it’s the Prozac. Maybe it’s because I deal with complex technology all day in my day job and secretly harbour an Anarcho-Luddite fantasy of the nuclear bombs going off and a return to much simpler times. Maybe it’s because I’m locked into the same 24/7 news cycle hamster wheel we all are and am heartily repulsed and disillusioned by all aspects of the greater human condition. Maybe it’s simply because I’m older now and have slipped so far into nihilistic cynicism that I can’t appreciate the wide-eyed wonder of fantasy anymore, and disbelieve in the possibility of individuals creating profound change. Frankly, as often as I do, I don’t really connect with this subject matter and find the themes tedious. I don’t care to ask l questions about the fundamental truths of the human condition. I couldn’t care less about the imaginings of future technology and how it may impact society. Who cares if the hero has a journey, or if he even arrives at his destination? Most of the time, I just want to feel something. Anything.

Back at the pedestrian crossing, the little green man signal springs to life. There is a brief moment where there my fellow pedestrians remain frozen in hesitation, not trusting their eyes that it’s truly safe to step onto the asphalt. I shove the icicle on the end of my arm into my coat pocket. I don’t need the phone anymore, I have the bit in my teeth. I’m onto something here. I step onto the road.

Jack Ketchum once related that a fan thought his writing was really all about loss. Having read most of Jack’s work, I think that reader was right. Having said that, I’d go a step further and say it’s not only true of Jack’s work, it’s true of all horror fiction. So how have I made that leap? Well, to understand that we need to discuss fear. After all, horror fiction is that which deals with the emotion fear in its various forms.

Fear (and its most extreme form, terror) is the oldest emotion. With fear comes that animalistic fight-or-flight defence mechanism, an aspect of our existence that’s survived countless aeons, the selection and mutations of evolution, and man’s descent from the canopies and ascent into consciousness. As the oldest emotion (and probably most important, I think), we as humans are ruled by it. It’s central to our existence and who we are. It governs all our most important decisions and actions. And fear? Fear thrives on loss. I’d go so far as to say that if you think about it the right way,  almost everything we fear is actually a fear of losing something.

Let’s take your employment, as a case study and we’ll ‘what if’ it to the nth degree. None of us want to lose our job, even the mere thought of it causes most of us anxiety or true panic. What happens if you lose your job? In the worst case scenario, you lose your financial stability. You lose your ability to buy food. You lose your ability to pay your rent or mortgage. You lose your ability to provide for your dependents. You might lose your spouse and your kids. You lose your ability to sustain your hygiene and health. Hells bells, my pulse quickens a little just entertaining the thought of any of that stuff.

Now let me refer you back to that initial bizarre comment about horror being somehow about love. If we fear to lose something—if the thought of its loss or its destruction, is so horrifying to us— it’s usually because we actually love that thing. We love the challenge and the reward of gainful employment. We love the stability and security it brings. We love full bellies and the warmth and comfort clothes over our back and a roof over our head. We love our spouses and children and our ability to provide for them. We love our vitality, good health and happiness. This is all as true for me in 2016 as it would’ve been for a me in 3000BC. Or 10,000BC.

At this point, I’m halfway across that road, breath steaming in the morning air. I’m beginning to feel some tingles of life in my phone hand again, but you heard me say ‘Horror is Love’ and I can hear y’all revving your engines, ready to run me over, little green man be damned!

Upon reflection, this might just be the truest, most-distilled reason why I read and write horror fiction. By the mere virtue of what it is, it’s just so damn emotionally honest. It’s the literature of love and loss. It speaks to me, like no other fiction does, on a truly animalistic level and in a wholly intuitive way that I don’t need to overly rationalise. My inner fucking caveman understands what’s going on here! Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate and enjoy the over-arching tale the author is telling, even the cautionary tale or social criticism they’re exploring—but beyond and deeper than that, on a fundamentally primordial level, as a motherfucking biological being, I can relate to horror fiction. No other genre gives me this visceral response, which harkens back to my most basic involuntary reptilian psychological and physiological functions. No other form of literature seems such an honest expression of what it means to be human or to be alive. No other genre understands me as a biological being that is trying to survive this inexorable series of harrowing moments between birth and death. I’m not even joking when I say—truly understanding fear, understanding horror, is in my (all of ours, really) DNA.

The little green man becomes a little red man as I step onto the kerb. The sullen men and well-manicured and composed women hurry away to their workplaces like good corporate denizens, anticipatory frowns creasing their brows. I smile because I understand now, and I appreciate the honesty.

Love and loss—that’s horror.

That’s life.

Front_End_Loader

One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short:  At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.

Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:

Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.

Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”

I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)

Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of:  the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire.  (Note:  Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)

Kristi DeMeester, author of Split Tongues, whose short fiction you can find at places like Black Static Magazine, Shimmer zine, and Shock Totem Magazine, says:

“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”

And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)

Joe Hill, author of novels such as The Fireman, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and fantastic short story collections such as 20th Century Ghosts, says on his blog Joe Hill’s Thrills:

“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:

My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.

The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.

Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!

You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”

Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)

The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:

The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.

The dead man’s daughter opens the door.

She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.

“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.

In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:

  1. The arrival at the house of the dead man is The Event. The house, more specifically who lives there and the business the protagonist Hepsibah has there, is central to the entire story. So her rocking up on site really is the beginning of the story here.
  2. By describing the door and the knocker she impresses upon the reader the importance of what is behind the door and instils a sense of trepidation. What horrors lurk behind this portal?? Perhaps also mixed with wonder or intrigue, as the description of the plush garden and reading nooks, and the general affluence of the house is raises questions. Who lives here??
  3. Then the dead man’s daughter opens the door, leaving us thinking “Who died? And what importance does their death (and perhaps death generally!) have to this story?” Additionally, the contrast of the pale, peachy, lickable maiden who answers the door versus the suspenseful description of the door from the preceding paragraph and the horrors it implied,  is masterful.
  4. And finally, and most crucially as far as this post goes, she front-loads that fantastic—she reveals Hepsibah’s dead ghostly father is beside her berating and beating her “as much as he did in life”.

Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!

Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.

I’ll use the opening paragraphs (which includes one of the very best opening lines I’ve ever read) from Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door:

You think you know about pain?

Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.

She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.

My second wife says that’s pain.

She doesn’t know shit, that woman.

Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately  question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain.  I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??

When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).

Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:

When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.

When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.

I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.

Here I’ll turn to Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the classic TV show Murder, She Wrote and author of Fiction writing Demystified:

Don’t front-load your exposition.

Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.

Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.

Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.

Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.

For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.

In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:

“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”

In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally,  in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is:  “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.

Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:

“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.

Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.

Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.

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.

 

 

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This is my third and (I think) final surprise for Women In Horror month – an interview with actress and Woman In Horror, Pollyanna McIntosh. I was first blown away by Pollyanna and her talent when she played “The Woman” in the movies of the Jack Ketchum novels Offspring, and The Woman. That’s right.. she’s quite literally THE WOMAN in horror, and she’s on my blog for WiHM, ftw!  (See what I did there, folks???  mwahaha) .  Pollyanna is also one of the stars on the new TV series of Joe Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard and I expect we’re going to be seeing a lot more of her in future!  Thanks so much for stopping by, Pollyanna!

HAP-AND-LEONARD_angel-pollyanna-mcintosh_02_700x384-620x340

Q. You’re possibly best known as “The Woman” from the movies based on Jack Ketchum’s novels: Offspring, The Woman, etc. What about that character in particular or those scripts intrigued you?

PM: The Woman is a sort of dream character, she’s intent, utterly independent, primal and her presence in each story is challenging some of our most screwed up human problems. The writing of Offspring the book first got me into her so it was such an exciting part to get offered, it showed a lot of faith from my director/producer, Andrew van den Houten and I was excited to be let to run wild with the character. Then they decided I shouldn’t die as intended in that film and so the idea of a sequel was born. When Lucky McKee came on board to co-write and direct The Woman I knew we were going to make something special. There was no question I was going to miss that!

Q. What is your favourite horror movie?

PM: Rosemary’s Baby does it for me. It’s creepy as all hell, I love the aesthetic and the sense of jeopardy is utterly sustained for me. Mia Farrow is bloody brilliant and John Cassavetes is a filmmaking crush of mine yet he’s so natural as an actor too. Add Ruth bloody marvelous Gordon in there and an array of other wonderful character actors and I’m hooked.

Q. You play Angel in the new TV series Hap and Leonard, based on the crime series by the renowned author Joe Lansdale. Can you tell us a bit about your character and how have you found playing her?

PM:  Hap and Leonard is a great new series on Sundance TV (available on Amazon Prime in the UK) based on Texan writer Joe R Lansdale’s book series of the same name. It’s set in East Texas in the 80s and is a buddy story of two unlikely best friends; Hap Collins (James Purefoy) a white, straight, divorced, ex hippie now jaded after spending time in jail for protesting the war and Leonard Pine (Michael Kenneth Williams) a black, openly gay, Vietnam veteran with anger issues. They run in to trouble thanks to Hap’s revolutionary ex wife Trudy (Christina Hendricks) and the trouble begins and ends with mine and Jimmi Simpson’s characters: Angel and Soldier. Angel is a lover but also a fighter. She’s the muscle and Soldier’s the talker. We make a fun pair of colourful killers.  I put on a lot of muscle for the role and had a ball shooting the show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She’s a crazy one to inhabit as I created a very damaged background story for her but in a good way she’s very clear about who she is and how she copes with her anger because people have become expendable to her when they get in her way yet she’s so in love with her Soldier so that kept me positive in a weird way. Trying to describe playing a role is an odd thing but it’s made joyful when you collaborate well with people and you feel you’re getting good storytelling made.

Hap and Leonard  Wednesdays on Sundance TV, Amazon Prime etc with James Purefoy, Michael K Williams, Christina Hendricks, Jimmi Simpson and me.

Q. You’re a Scottish girl living in LA. You can take the girl out of Scotland..but can you take Scotland out of the girl?

PM: Never! My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here. My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer.

Q. Have you encountered any issues while working in the film industry that have been complicated by your gender; and are initiatives like Women in Horror Month important?

PM: I think any group choosing to highlight and celebrate women as important equal members of our entertainment culture and culture in general helps inspire and keep moving us forward and that’s important. I’m about meritocracy but we don’t live in one as so many valuable leaders are overlooked because of gender, race and other fears our traditional hierarchy clings on to. For myself as far as gender politics in the industry is concerned, I’ve been made well aware of them but have also found ways to initiate more equality for myself and those around me. Much of the time I find the sexism to be institutionalized and often lazy or unconscious. In those cases I’ve found it pretty easy to steer things (story, character, attitude) onto a more equal and satisfying ground.

As for if have I lost out on things because I’m a woman? You just have to look at the numbers to know we’re undervalued in my industry but we can vote with our money, like all of us in this capitalist society. So for me it’s important to seek out female projects that I like and buy that theatre ticket or tweet about this new TV show or whatever. Groundswell is important, we can’t afford to waste time. I’d love a day when women take not one bit of patriarchal bullshit. One day would sort it. Just underpay for the “luxury tax” put on tampons and walk out the shop with them anyway. If you get grabbed by security, bleed all over them. All women paid less than their male counterparts strike. Can you imagine the chaos across sectors? All across the world, women storming schools they’re denied access to, protesting health centers, sacking the vatican, flooding court houses. Not one shitty gossip magazine or peach scented douche sold that day, shampoo priced higher than the men’s would be dashed open across supermarket aisles. Older women would read the news all day, History class in school would teach Suffrage and inspire with unsung heroines, female poets and writers would be given equal space on the curriculum, girls could wear trousers wherever the fuck they liked and breastfeeding would be happening everywhere. And not one apology for speaking up uttered. I think I may have to write that film.

Q. At the end of The Woman, your character and the little girl walk off into the woods. Horror fans can smell a sequel! Can you see yourself reprising the role if Jack and Lucky write one?

PM: Hold that thought…

 

Pollyanna’s Favourite Charity

Please support and spread the word about this wonderful charity I’m working with which provides free counselling and opens discussions about mental health in schools. Thank you.

Pollyanna McIntosh’s Links:

twitter: @PollyAMcIntosh
instagram: @PollyannaMcIntosh

 

 

 

I was alerted to another review of Suspended in Dusk that I thought I’d share.  It’s very exciting and humbling to know the books is out there, still being enjoyed by readers.  Also check out the Parlor of Horror Blog. It has a lot of fiction and movie reviews that are worth a look.

Suspended in Dusk adheres to a general theme. Dusk can be foreboding, the onset of night. It can mean the end of an era or a life. As expressed in the introduction by Jack Ketchum, it can also be a time of transition. Here we find a collection of high quality horror tales to thrill and chill the discerning horror reader. In Shadows of the Lonely Dead by Alan Baxter we find a benefit for an old age home nurse who has witnessed too much death. Next is the small town horror that emerges from the forest, looking for human sacrifices in, At Dusk They Come by Armand Rosamillia.

A Woman of Disrepute by Icy Sedgwick is written in old style gothic, which is a style I enjoy reading. The Ministry of Outrage is an intelligent socio-political commentary that oozes unfathomable truths about the human race and our penchant for violence. Extra kudos to Chris Limb for this offering.

Reasons to Kill by J. C. Michael is one of my fave stories in the book. It pulls you in and keeps twisting, wringing the tension tighter and tighter. It is a fantastic story of zombie infection and vampire lore that feels organically original. Ramsey Campbell contributes to the anthology with a frightening variation on a buried alive story called, Digging Deep. Reading it imparts the feeling of claustrophobia and the desperation in the man’s pleas for help are unnerving.

There are many other great stories to read here, each with their own unique style and tone. Hats off to editor, Simon Dewar, for choosing tales that are top notch horror entertainment and delivering one of the best horror fiction anthologies I’ve read in some time.

https://parlorofhorror.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/suspended-in-dusk-book-review/

4. Locomotion

Locomotive

Whether it’s a breakneck thrilling train ride or a slow scenic tour through countryside, opening our eyes to expansive vistas of beauty or whathaveyou, a story—like a train—needs a locomotive. Y’know, that big carriage at the front of the train whose engine propells the rest of the train forward along the tracks.

Locomotive: [Latin locō, from a place, ablative of locus, place + Medieval Latin mōtīvus, causing motion; see motive.]

Motive
[moh-tiv]
Spell Syllables
Synonyms Examples Word Origin
noun
1.
something that causes a person to act in a certain way, do a certain thing, etc.; incentive.
2.
the goal or object of a person’s actions:
Her motive was revenge.
3.
(in art, literature, and music) a motif.
adjective
4.
causing, or tending to cause, motion.
5.
pertaining to motion.
6.
prompting to action.
7.
constituting a motive or motives.
verb (used with object), motived, motiving.
8.
to motivate.

The real locomotive of a story is the characters. It is the characters tha truly make the story move forward via their response to events. It’s the characters who move (motivus!) the story forward from one event or one place (locus!) to another. An event (such as the inciting incident) may occur, but if the characters passively accept it and sit there with their thumbs in their asses, you don’t actually have a story. Nothing moved. Nothing changed. There was no locomotion.

I have to care about your characters. Very early on you need to make me care about your characters or I’m not going to want to bother reading further. They have to be someone. They need hopes and fears. They need to act in accordance with their hopes and fears, specifically in how they deal with the Inciting Incident and events through the story. They need genuine motive.

Character + Events / Motive = Locomotion (aka a story that is going places!)

5. The Feels – Emotions and Themes

rightinthefeels

Let’s start with what a good story must not be. A good story isn’t boring. At the end of the day we read for pleasure, enjoyment and entertainment. No one likes a snoozefest, so don’t give them one. A boring story is a waste of the reader’s time. If it’s not the kind of story that really lights your fire, why would you expect anyone else to like it? So at a minumum a story must never be boring. Author Jack Ketchum was once famously advised to “Write lively”, but I’ve heard it expressed by others more commonly as “Don’t be boring.” Just. Don’t. Do it. Getting a second opinion on this, it’s important! Get someone else to read it and see if it rustles their jimmies. If a story is boring, I’m going to reject it.

Hurt Me. Scream at the sky. Break my heart. But don’t waste my time. – Jack Ketchum

So you’re bound and determined to not write a boring story. You’ve slapped your characters with an event and they’re off responding according to their realistic and fully fleshed out personas and dispositions. Is that enough? Is it enough to just let the story play out or is there any need to try and impart something deeper? A theme or a message? is it necessary to attempt to evoke a particular emotion in your reader?

The theme in a story is its underlying message, or ‘big idea.’ In other words, what critical belief about life is the author trying to convey in the writing of a novel, play, short story or poem? This belief, or idea, transcends cultural barriers. It is usually universal in nature. When a theme is universal, it touches on the human experience, regardless of race or language. It is what the story means. Often, a piece of writing will have more than one theme.
http://study.com/academy/lesson/what-is-theme-in-literature-definition-examples-quiz.html

Does a story need a theme to be successful or enjoyable? There are plenty of stories, in both fiction and film, without prominent themes that are great fun and thoroughly enjoyable; however, in the end, I think almost every story has some sort of theme going on. Whether it is just one of the importance of friendship or comradeship that is a subtle undertone of your military scifi blast ’em up, or the inescapably prominent themes of cosmic horror and human insignificance that pervade the works of HP Lovecraft, almost every story has some kind of theme going on. A really good story has a theme that illicts emotions. This is this two punch combination that will floor the editor and make them buy your work. Genre or medium aside, this is the hallmark of great art.

no feels.jpg

In my opinion, the very best art evokes emotion. At a basic level, beyond making any kind of statement or addressing any kind of theme, this is probably the primary purpose of art. The best fiction is evocative fiction.

Since we developed spoken language, long before writing, we were telling each other stories. It’s how we make sense of the world around us, each other and our inner selves. We’re humans, with all that entails emotionally, who enjoy hearing (or reading) about other humans with emotions. Its through the sharing of emotions and empathy that we identify and relate to one another, and to the characters in stories. When a person picks up a book, they’re effectively living or experiencing vicariously through the characters in the book. The reader wants to feel what these people are feeling: whether it is the sheer terror as the character steps into the darkened cellar or the triumph as the warrior stands above his vanquished. They want to feel the rush of emotions as the man or woman falls in love, and the crushing despair when love is lost, or it all falls apart.

The best writers make you feel by painting characters who are real people. The situations that the characters encounter don’t need to be real, but they have to have realistic motives. Like the rest of us, they must have talents and deficiencies. The must have their own hopes and fears. They should have their own idiosyncrasies and neuroses. The best writers create characters that the reader could very well see themselves being; Or characters within which they can see their own real life family, friends or acquaintances. And then? And then they fuck with those characters.

If a story has no emotion or discernible theme— i.e no real “feels” —, even if well written, I’ll most likely be overlooking it in favour of something more evocative. Something that challenges me or speaks to me on some deeper level.  Move yourself closer to the short list by writing evocative lively fiction.

6. Failure to maintain suspension of disbelief

SODB

There is an unwritten contract between any reader and an author, wherein an author gives the reader a story and the reader promises to believe it is plausible or true. We’ve all gotten part way through hearing a story, whether reading it in a book or hearing it from a friend and thought “Nup… I call bullshit. I’m out!”. This is the moment when our ability to consider the story as true or plausible is shattered. Our ability to suspend our disbelief has failed. From that moment on, it is near impossible for a writer to recapture the editor or reader’s interest in the story (particularly within the confines of a short story!).

The key to preventing this from occuring is to make the story consistent. By this i mean, the characters and world they live in have to consistently conform to the standards that the author has set, just as in the natural world we have general laws and conventions by which things abide. The story itself doesn’t need to be realistic, it can be wildly fantastical, but within that fantasy world it must be consistent. If an author breaks too many of his own laws it will come across as contrived and they’ll lose the reader.

Many stories that come through the slush pile fail to maintain my suspension of disbelief. When events occur too haphazardly; when a character randomly busts out new unknown magic powers or implausible skills; when a character acts too wildly out of character and the story travels down too unlikely a path — I’m gonna reject the story. My main logic here is that often it would take substantial re-writing and editing to correct this. For this reason, your tale will be rejected in favour of other stories that are better formed and require less work.

7. Lack of Peer Review

It’s often said that critique groups or beta readers are essential tools for writers to vet their work, help them hone their skills, help them reduce mistakes in the manuscript before they’re sent off to the editor or publisher. This is completely true.

Often there are discussions about what is a better, a critique group or beta readers. Personally I find beta readers who are conversant in your chosen genre to be the most effective as they tend to drill further down into your story, rather than the high level look that seems to be more common in critique groups. I’ve also found that many critique groups are geared towards one or another genre. It can be counter-productive to have people are not familiar with horror writing, for example, to be critiquing your horror stories. If they’re not conversant with traditions and tropes or common horror conventions, they often just “don’t get” your story. Personally I prefer to find other writers who I trust and whose fiction I admire, who write within the genre I write to beta-read my work. I find that I have better outcomes and get better advice this way. Other people have different experiences, and that’s fine. Whatever works for you is great, but choose on or other (or both) of these options and use them. They WILL improve your writing generally, and they will improve specific stories that they look at.

Why do I mention this? Sure, some professional writers can churn out high quality work that would fool me or other editors into thinking it had been peer reviewed, but I think you can genuinely tell most of the fiction that comes through the slush pile that has only ever seen the author’s eyes. The techniques and issues described in Parts I and II of this series (also see my post on filtering) are not rocket science. They do take time to learn and time to become confident and consistent in implementing. It takes a long, long time to train your critical eye to be able to see the forest for the trees when it comes to the mistakes and deficiencies in your own writing. Even then, we often can’t see our own mistakes. Beta Readers (get more than one) or critique groups will likely catch some or all of the mistakes or force you to address issues which, in turn, make some of those other mistakes more visible to you. All this should be done before the story ever reaches the editor or publisher. If you’re going up against tens or hundreds of other writers of differing abilities, perhaps some of them genuine professional writers, you need your story in the best state it can be before it arrives in the editor’s inbox.

Here are some things which indicate lack of peer review:

1. Writing starts too far before the beginning of the actual story – Determining this is a tough skill to learn for new writers, increase your chances of hitting the mark via peer review.
2. Long tracts of exposition. Exposition can be nice, but it’s also dead writing that isn’t moving the plot forward.
3. A lot of passive voice/filtering. (see: )
4. Starting scenes with descriptions of the weather – we know you’re trying to set the scene but this is a weak and lazy way of starting a story/scene. Start a scene with something happening or someone doing soemthing. Weave a sense of weather/ambience/etc into the following text.
5. Logical inconsitencies in characters, plot or world building (See suspension of disbelief above)
6. Story is thinly veiled fan fiction.
7. Story infringes another’s copyright or
8. Story uses common tropes and does nothing new with them/Story is wholly derivative.
etc.

As soon as editors start discovering these things in your work, they’ll reject your story. Let these kind of prose level and structural issues get caught by your peer reviewers, don’t let them get through to the editor.

Conclusion:

I could probably write more on this topic, but at the end of the day, the road to rejection is perilously short if you don’t know the pitfalls to look out for.  Start at the beginning, give me real characters, hit them with a event or incident, have them react. Have something you want to say and make me feel something, damn you! Write lively and never be boring. Be consistent with your characters and with your world building. Get someone to review your work.  Once you’ve tightened all the nuts and bolts, submit your work and gird your loins. Rinse and repeat. With time and effort and repetition you’ll improve and your stories will get out there.

And most of all? Enjoy.

Suspended in Dusk has been released on Amazon.  Link: myBook.to/Dusk 

Epub and print versions are to follow shortly. I’ll post again once they’ve been released.

——

“Disquieting and at times terrifying, SUSPENDED IN DUSK shows that horror can, and should, have substance.” ~ Kaaron Warren, Shirley Jackson Award winner, and author of Slights, Mystification, Walking the Tree.

“SUSPENDED IN DUSK offers a delicious assortment of chills, frights, shocks and very dark delights!” ~ Jonathan Maberry, Bram Stoker Award winner and New York Times bestselling author of Fall of Night and V-Wars

Suspended In Dusk NEW

Dusk: A time between times.

A whore hides something monstrous and finds something special.
A homeless man discovers the razor blade inside the apple.
Unlikely love is found in the strangest of places.
Secrets and dreams are kept… forever.

Or was it all just a trick of the light?

Suspended in Dusk brings together 19 stories by some of the finest minds in Dark Fiction:

Ramsey Campbell, John Everson, Rayne Hall, Shane McKenzie, Angela Slatter, Alan Baxter, S.G Larner, Wendy Hammer, Sarah Read, Karen Runge, Toby Bennett, Benjamin Knox, Brett Rex Bruton, Icy Sedgwick, Tom Dullemond, Armand Rosamilia, Chris Limb, Anna Reith, J.C. Michael.

Introduction by Bram Stoker Award Winner and World Horror Convention Grand Master, Jack Ketchum.

Oh god, I’ve been dying to let this out… and now I finally can!

Living legend of horror and suspense writing, Dallas Mayr (AKA Jack Ketchum) has written a *fantatsic* introduction for my Suspended in Dusk anthology.

Who’s the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum — Stephen King.

I can’t tell you how excited and honoured I am. Dallas Mayr is a true professional, an awesome guy, and one hell of a scary writer.

Dallas (writing as Jack Ketchum) burst onto the horror scene in 1981 with his novel Off Season, that caused such an uproar that his own publisher actually removed it from print. In 1999, an unexpurgated version was released by Cemetery Dance. In his career, Dallas has won four Bram Stoker Awards, and has earned the title of World Horror Convention Grand Master, placing him in the august company of the likes of Stephen King, Tanith Lee, Clive Barker, Robert Bloch, Joe R. Lansdale and many others.

I think my favourite Ketchum story is one called Hide and Seek because it takes three things we all know… the child’s game hide and seek, self-destructive teens, and the classic haunted house tale …and does something new and terrifying with them. There is a particularly good audio-book version of this read by a narrator called Wayne June, whose deep bassy voice and fantastic vocal skills really bring this one to life. Check it out, along with the rest of Jack’s bibliography.

Jack also periodically teaches a four week horror writing course via Litreactor.com which is fantastic and I recommend those horror writers out there who want to take their writing down avenues they hadnt even imagined: If it comes up again, take this course. You won’t regret it.

This (along with the fantastic endorsements from Kaaron Warren and Jonathan Maberry and the fantastic line-up of authors) is just one more reason why you should pick up the Suspended in Dusk anthology upon release.

Hope to have a release date for you in coming days.

S.

“Horror is many things to many people.” – Scott Nicholson

It’s no secret, I love the Horror genre and its many sub-genres.   I’ve naturally gravitated towards writing horror even though I really only started reading it in earnest in my mid-twenties. I’ve enjoyed immensely the insane roller coaster ride I’ve taken through novels by the like of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, Brian Keene and others; and shorter works by the likes of Angela Slatter, HP Lovecraft, Ramsey Campbell, to name just a few.

For me there’s something particularly gratifying about horror fiction because – whether we know it or not – it speaks to us on multiple levels.  Like any fiction it is a form of entertainment, however unlike all fiction it is particularly good at certain things:

1. In a way that no other genre does, with the probable exception of Romance, it speaks to us on a primal level, exciting physiological responses (racing pulses, dread, sweaty palms, actual terror; fear and confusion) within us.

2. It relates to us by use of cautionary tales, ones that we can understand through our own human experience: don’t go into the tall grass, don’t walk in the woods alone at night, don’t pull over and pick up the hitch-hiker,  — If you do this, bad shit can/will happen.

3. Often, it delivers poignant social criticisms or criticisms of human traits or qualities.  Behind the cannibalism and the severed-penis necklaces, stories like Jack Ketchum’s Offspring or Richard Laymon’s “The Woods Are Dark” examine how different people and societies respond to violent and horrific situations and the decent into barbarism.  The zombie sub-genre and novels like Stephen King’s ”The Stand” offer social criticisms or commentary around issues such as consumerism, reliance on technology, greed and selfishness vs. altruism and selflessness, the ethics of medical experimentation/weapons research etc.

As the years have gone by, a lot of the common horror plot devices or creatures etc have evolved into well-worn tropes.  Obvious examples of these are ghosts, zombies, vampires and serial killers, cannibals, etc.  The thing that really annoys me is that editors, publishers and markets these days have really fallen into the trap of viewing and defining horror fiction or the horror genre as being these tropes.   So much so that if you don’t include one of these tropes or a subtle spin on one of these tropes within your fiction, it isn’t actually considered to be horror.

From the Horror Writer’s Association website:

So why, you might ask, is horror so generally frowned upon by the literary establishment?

The answer to that question lies in the nature of the publishing industry. Back in the seventies, an unknown writer burst onto the scene with a novel called Carrie. The work went on to be made into a wildly successful film, and a new genre was born. The author I’m referring to is, of course, Stephen King. King set the stage for what horror was to become in the eighties and early nineties.

Almost overnight, King’s brand of fiction became a multi-million dollar industry. Publishers saw the dollar signs looming before them and charged full speed ahead, making horror into a product. They gave it a specific identity, a specific formula. Writers then popped out of the woodwork, eager to embrace and attempt to duplicate the stunning success of Mr. King.

It was at this point that horror literature lost its identity.

I disagree with this proscriptive attitude that Horror fiction is or should be defined by certain formula, mythology or repetitive plot devices.  I honestly feel that you could write a story in a contemporary setting with no serial killers, or supernatural or paranormal elements and it could still be horrific. It could still create those tell-tale horrific physiological reactions in the reader, all the while telling a cautionary tale or providing a social criticism or commentary.

I recently wrote a story that about a teenage boy who, in attempting to overcome bullying and self-doubt in the wake of a horrific bicycle crash, braves the same hill on a bicycle that put him in hospital.  The story is well written and gets the reader’s blood pumping. It acts as cautionary tale and a social criticism of sorts. It features graphic descriptions of traumatic and bloody bicycle crash. It has been critiqued by a multi-award winning professional horror writer who encouraged me to submit it widely for publication.

The upshot is, I can’t actually sell the thing though because it just isn’t what horror markets are looking for.  It doesn’t have any ghosts/vampires/demons/zombies/hillbilly rapists/vagina dentata/serial killers/supernatural or paranormal elements.  As a result, I’ve submitted it to literary fiction magazines and currently have it “In Progress” with several.  The additional irony and kick-in-the-teeth being that none of the professional horror magazines accept simultaneous submissions so I have to wait 30-60 days for each of them to reject it, yet all the literary mags allow simultaneous submissions so I now have the story out to about 12 or so literary mags.

The horror identity crisis does not stop here, however.

The great irony is that while we have the editors of our current horror publications and presses viewing horror fiction through the prison of well-established tropes, we have another myopic form of censorship occurring more widely through the literary world, in respect to horror writing.

The following is tale comes from the horror author Scott Nicholson, and his description of the day he realised he was the Last American Horror Writer.

“Showing up early for a recent signing, I had time to browse the store a little bit, checking out the competition, wading past the pirate and Da Vinci material to reach the fiction section. I looked for the titles of my friends, who are also horror writers. Miraculously, practically overnight, the spines of their books had been changed to read simply “Fiction.”

I was all alone, and that was scarier than any ghost or monster I had ever penned. I’m not vain enough to believe I had suddenly become the standard bearer for a fading genre. No, what had changed was the publishing industry perception of the label. The publishers’ sales teams believe horror doesn’t sell, so they convey this lack of enthusiasm to the bookstores. The bookstore owners don’t order it, and because readers don’t see it on the shelves, they believe horror must no longer be readable.”

So the horror writer exists in a state of literary limbo.  Our work is defined by editors as horror or not based upon a myopic prism of tropes and pre-requisites; and yet (in its longer forms) is defined or referred to by publishers and bookstores as ‘fiction’ because horror does not, apparently, sell – or is so low a form of literature as to not even warrant its own bookshelf.

So what is the solution to the great Horror Identity Crisis?

I’m not really a solutions kinda guy. I never have been. I roll with the punches and I’m not exactly prolific enough or of a stature that anyone of any note will listen anyway – but I do think that certain things should happen:

  1. Horror writers should have their work labelled as such (at least assuming they wish it to be so).  Publishers need to get over the fear of Horror and understand its great value as literature and what it can offer as unique vehicles for story-telling, conveying emotion or social criticism etc.  They also need to realise that it really has great potential for sales (historically proven) and great opportunities for movie adaptations (also historically proven) and additional revenue streams if appropriately marketed etc.  The  belief that “Horror is dead” is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  2. Editors, publishers, writers and readers need to realise that Horror, really is, many things to many people; and, at the heart of it, (even though I’m using the capital ‘H’ here) it really is an emotion and not just a genre. Horror (and horror) is not defined by supernatural or paranormal elements – even though they can be plot devices that generate it.
  3. People generally, need to approach literature with an open mind because they never really know the true value of a story until they’ve read it, nor do they know its sales potential or its historic lasting power until they’ve published it – and even then, initial sales are a poor indicator.  If you look at Tolkien or HP Lovecraft, they’re both much bigger now than ever they were during their own lifetimes.

I’ll leave you with the words of the Douglas E. Winter; anthologist and biographer of Clive Barker and Stephen King.

“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in the ghetto of libraries or a bookstore … horror is an emotion.” — Douglas E. Winter in the introduction to Prime Evil (New York: New American Library, 1988)

Would love to hear your thoughts on Horror (and horror) and the great Horror Identity Crisis! Please share this post, if possible, so it can get wide distribution. Would love to get a conversation started.

S.

References:

  1. http://www.horror.org/horror-is.htm
  2. http://www.hauntedcomputer.com/scottst53.htm

Talking Scars

Posted: September 10, 2013 in Blog
Tags: , , ,

Starting a horror writing course soon which I hope will introduce me to some new techniques and help me voice the kind of messages I want to voice when I’m writing. I hoping, one day, to be able to paint the kind of picture which readers can’t look away from, no matter how much they may wish to.

Its called “Talking Scars” and is being taught by Jack Ketchum on Litreactor.com

talking-scars-1

For those of you who dont know Jack Ketchum (pen name of Dallas Mayr) he is one of the great living horror writers, a Bram Stoker award winner and a World Horror Convention Grand Master. In short, he writes some scary, gut-churning shit but what I love most about it is I feel that his characters are very well written and their inner fears are always made plain for the reader in a way that the reader can often empathise with them.  Then Jack drops them in brutal situations and it all goes downhill from there.

Will keep you updated as to how the course goes. Cant wait!