|Fresh Dirt Archives: Jan.-March
A tangent to this issue came up on a Shocklines thread: Are horror novels too conservative, since they usually end up restoring the status quo through a defeat of Evil-Unorthodoxy-Normalcy? I gave an example of my first real novel, which remains unsold. I'm currently revising it, and it's full of raw pain, experimentation, sometimes-daring word play, and it makes you turn the page. It's too strange to summarize on the back jacket of a book. I won't claim it's a work of genius, or even that it's well crafted. But it's alive and it crackles. And it was rejected over 100 times. It's a lot less conservative than most of my work, but obviously no one (so far) thinks an audience wants that type of experience.
Watched "Calvaire," a.k.a. "The Ordeal," a Belgian movie that's pretty weird. While the violence is casual, there's no real story arc, except perhaps a man's buying into a mass delusion. It's better than some of the American torture-horror I've seen lately, and I hope this trend dies quickly. Of course, by the time a trend is actually noted, identified, and written up in "Entertainment Weekly," it's already rolling out the back door to be deposited at the curb.
I've been thinking a lot about how he must get frustrated from time to time, having a long career but never really making the major break and playing to relatively small but very enthusiastic audiences. His CDs go in and out of print, and he even joked about the old days of record stores when people could steal music the old-fashioned honest way instead of downloading it illegally. And Peter Buck, who is undoubtedly living very well off REM royalties, certainly doesn't have to hit the road in a sawed-off, windowless van. But they put it out there and so maybe it is just about the music and not the success. And the dude did have the coolest shirts...
I went around to some of my old college haunts before the show. Hippie Hollow, the old farm where I used to live, had changed so much I barely recognized it. While the main house was gone, the old shed, where meat was once hung to cure and a place that served as my bedroom and music room, was still there, but the property had so many "No Trespassing" signs that the older, more law-abiding version of me didn't breach the invisible border. My old dorm was kind of depressing--all the doors now had keyed security locks and when I tried to look in, I realized it was now a female dorm and I was probably being reported as a creep. I crept rapidly away and walked some of the old paths, but I realized my day was done and the property now belonged to a bunch of teenagers. Mostly all I saw were places where I had imbibed too many damaging substances and perhaps I didn't really have that many memories remaining after all. Eventually I decided that it's better that it didn't stay exactly the same, and it wasn't the world's responsibility to remain fixed for my benefit. While I'm not so sure whether or not you can go home again, I am pretty firmly accepting that you can't back to college again.
If you own a copy of "The Home," you'll see a scrap of quote, used with Hitchcock's permission: "Life is what happened to the dead." There's a whole poem that goes with it, but that line kind of summed up the book to me. I've done a lot of writing with Hitchcock as co-pilot. He's one of these odd characters that never seems to achieve mass success but earns the admiration of many artists (Jonathan Demme, director of "Silence of the Lambs," did a movie of a storefront Hitchcock performance and Peter Buck of REM is his current guitarist). I don't really care if other people "discover" him or not--he's been performing for 30 years, so I guess overnight success is out of the question. Judging from interviews I've read, he is all about the creative quest, not the payoff or acclaim.
I can relate to that--I hopped that desolate train myself. The tracks roll on out there, always uphill, and the station is always over the next rise. The engine chuffs noxious smoke but it chugs, and the wheels may slow but they never rust. Onward.
My agent has started his own company called Objective Entertainment and it looks like they'll be combining stage, screen, and writing, sort of a mini William Morris (the agency we both started together in). Now this is my third different company with him and though it's had little practical effect, at some point I'll have to get the old rights back to my books (the contracts assign the books' subsequent representation to the agency, not the agent, so theoretically I now have three agencies. Realistically, the earlier agencies have no reason to keep my properties unless they think they can make later money off them, and in this case it certainly doesn't look to be worth the trouble of the paperwork.) Some writers go through many different agents in their careers. I'm sticking with this one and seeing what happens. It's never been dull so far--and besides, I was thinking of looking for a film agent anyway, and this new endeavor solves that problem.
Holding the book in my hand gives me a little sense of satisfaction--after all, that one took almost a year to write--but it's just another piece of the day, along with garden dirt, a limping goat, a cool new novel in progress, and a bowl of cereal for dessert. Some people say "You're only as good as your last book," but I always believe you're only as good as your last sentence. I try to write good, sturdy sentences that do a little more than merely function. Sometimes I succeed, other times I get a little lazy or rushed. But, you know, it's fun. It beats the heck out of counting money or welding mufflers or chainsawing trees. And, sure, in the end it's just another cheesy thriller in world where thrills are cheap, but it came out of nowhere but a place inside me, a crevice that leads down through the bowels of dreams, where flights of fancy take crippled wing, where shadows--aw, shucks, there I go again, flappin' my jowls like a codger. Buy the book. Read it. Maybe that's dream enough for today.
It's not really a freak-out because I know almost exactly what each of these projects needs and the work it will entail. And that's not to mention the psych thriller I set aside because I simply wasn't enjoying it--I'll finish it one day because obviously I hate to leave things half-finished and I believe there are learning experiences even in the failures. So either I'm scatterbrained and flighty (which, after nine novels and about 70 short stories, not to mention reams and reams of journalism pieces, I don't believe so) or I have a variety of interests at the moment. Most of them are different but add them all up and I guess it's me. Slightly over the top but with a sentimental streak, a hopeless romantic (as if there were any other kind), and most of all, someone really coming to accept that maybe I'm a little weird and it's okay. Or maybe I'm a lot weird and that's even better.
Come on over to the dark side. The party never ends and the company's friendlier.
I'm working on a couple of projects at once, something I could easily do when my mind was younger and fresher. Now I'm more likely to just lock up like a rusty musket whose wadding is packed too tightly. I'm hearing good things about THEY HUNGER and in a couple of weeks I will do the final promotional push. I can't change the fate of the book much, as its future was determined a few months ago when one salesperson gave the cover to another salesperson and made a deal based on total ignorance of the story. I have no idea what that deal is, and probably never will. If the big chain stores tget five to eight copies each, that's a good thing (assuming most of them sell). If they get two, well, this is one of those reasons they advise writers not to quit their day jobs.
Here's me and RH (Rachel) Stavis at Shevacon last weekend.
I was on a panel at ShevaCon with two other authors, with the topic of "Can you make a living in science fiction, fantasy, and horror?" While the honest answer of "no" would have made it the shortest con panel in history, we had a small crowd of inquiring minds that deserved its 50 minutes' worth of amusement. The other two authors were self-published--one understood the business end (and the harsh realities) and had sold 5,000 of his books himself, mostly through school appearances promoting his young-adult fantasy. The other said he was coming up on 500 in sales. When I explained that a mass market paperback was an utter failure if it sold 10,000 copies, it was obvious we were having different discussions. It wasn't a question of whether you should write well enough to gain a major publisher (who actually pays you, thus maybe giving you an outside shot of making a living at it once you're deserving), it became about at what point you can afford to spend your own money to then spend a lot of your time trying to earn it back.
I'm not sure the message mattered much, though. Most people worry about the wrong part of this whole deal; craft and art come way before any concerns of business. There were 11 people attending that panel; only four people were at the two-hour, intensive and free writing workshop held hours earlier. You gotta lace up before you try to run the marathon, folks.
I also need to get my Hunger promo out to the square press in the next couple of weeks. Advance copies go out a couple months ahead for magazines but newspapers have shorter deadlines. Also, I'm still hoping the "Win My Teeth" contest gets some ink as a freak piece, which is the only way the square press knows how to cover horror.
Girlism: "I can't go swimming in the ocean right now because I have a bruise on my hand. Sharks can smell blood 360 miles away. Or maybe it's farther than that."
I recently finished James Lee Burke's "Crusader's Cross," featuring his series character Dave Robicheaux. While ostensibly a mystery novelist, Burke is one of the most gifted and masterful writers in the English language, whether in genre or out. He has a little thing called "theme" you rarely find in popular novels. In this, the theme is the title. Robicheaux, a recovering drunk with a violent past, questions the very sense of justice that drives his actions. On the surface, this sense seems noble, but it is rarely shared by anyone else and ultimately seems destructive and damaging. As his superior officer puts it, Robicheaux must continually drag himself up on the cross and revel in his own selfish martyrdom, believing he deserves the lance in the side and the nails and thorns to his flesh.
My own sense of justice is an evolving beast. Sometimes I ride it, and sometimes it rides me. I cling to high-minded ideals, but inside I'm just as petty as anyone, quick to strike whether through fear, guilt, or a distorted feeling of persecution. And after each trial by fire, no matter who wins, all that remains is ash. It doesn't matter who is right and who is wrong when rightness inflicts suffering.
I cut the pad of my index finger. I can't form a regular guitar chord. Instead of choosing not to play, I choose to play a little differently, maybe even ridiculously. Sometimes I forget the finger is cut, and the notes hurt. One day I will climb down from my cross.
First review of They Hunger up at Unspeakable Horror and the Publisher's Weekly review is posted at Amazon: "This vampiric Deliverance moves quickly and assuredly, offering some fine scares along the way." Hear that, Hollywood? Buy this sucker.
Girlism of the day: "What if the goats are aliens sent from Mars and their eyes are pictures and in the night they turn into monsters and destroy things?" Dearest, the reality is far, far worse!
For years, I've thought the most chilling phrase in the English language is when a woman said, "We need to talk." Now that has been bumped in the lexicon of distressing dialogue by, "Daddy, can we get some piiiiigs? Just one or two, with a bunch of babies...."
One of her desires is to be a bird. But then, heaven also poses its dangers, as she asked, "What happens if you die in heaven? What if a cat eats you, and you're a bird?" Well, all I could honestly answer was, "I don't know. I guess heaven is whatever you want it to be."
She's already busted Santa Claus, having caught her mom eating the same brand of candy before Christmas that later appeared in the stocking. She axed the Easter Bunny and also the Tooth Fairy. She didn't buy the hemming and hawing. She said, "I don't care, I just want to know. I want to know everything!" Even after finding out the truth, though, she still wants her dental dollars and her chocolate bunnies. Now it looks like she has God in her sights. Heaven help Him/Her/It.
The Weekly World News, the fine enterprise that chronicled Batboy's adventures, for years walked the line between truth and consequences. The content didn't have to be provable, went their editorial stance--instead, all that was required to roll the presses was that a story couldn't be disproven. After all, can any of us really prove that Bill Clinton never met with aliens or that Hillary isn't planning on naming Bigfoot as her running mate? Despite this daring crusader's stance, the last issue I read held a masthead declaring the stories "works of fiction" bearing no resemblance to events, people, or things either living or dead (or sometimes both). Oh, how my heart sank. Not only does this mean my beloved Batboy is nothing but a trite emblem on an overpriced T-shirt, it also means my journalistic dream of writing for the Weekly World News is shattered.
With great resignation and depression, I must now focus on my own fiction, where Batboy-like creatures can still cavort and play and never be held accountable in the cruel and judgmental eyes of the cognoscenti.
I'm listening to an audio tape of James Lee Burke's Crusader's Cross. I'm always amazed at the power of his writing. Vivid yet simple, dispensing moral and philosophical insights while pushing forward a compelling plot. People like that make me despair because I'll never write a single sentence as good as his, but on the other hand, maybe I can learn just a little bit and bring some of my settings to life the way Burke does his Louisiana bayou.
Two decent story sales--"A Socketful of Blather," which had been languishing at the apparently dead DNA Publications (make that DOA Publications) for going on nine years (writing is not a game for the impatient) will now be at Spacesuits and Sixguns #2, online in April. Check out the first issue--cool cover art with a retro pulpy feel.
"Fear Goggles" will appear in Monster Noir, coming this year from Nyx Books, headed by the talented-and-lovely Steve Savile. The creepy cover lists Brian Hodge, TM Wright, and Stel Pavlou among contributors.
Just finished another story, "Bone by Bone." I had started it a while back and abandoned it. Yesterday, Girl wanted the "big computer" for a game so I hunched at her little play desk with the laptop and cranked out 2,500 words in about an hour and a half. It's times like those that I do the multiplication and think, "Well, if I could write like that all the time, I'd publish 10 books a year."
But those "revised expectations" say sometimes I'm only going to write a paragraph, or I'll throw away a page, or "unpaid, unappreciated volunteer work" for my writing organizations will steal my free time. Or I'll get lazy. Or depressed. But any time I wallow in the difficulty of the writing life, or the true gulf between my talents and my ambitions, all it takes is a decent writing session to make it all go away.
I was telling a fellow writer the other day, there are only two hard things about writing: starting and stopping. Chuck Palahniuk has some pretty good advice at his online writing workshop, too. He recommends a kitchen timer--set it for a specific period, write until it goes off. If you're bored then, stop. If you can't stop, continue.
Here's the direct link to the goat story. Also, a pic from the Writers of the Future era, late 1990s. Another Palahniukism is to have your author photo done while you are still young--and your hair is darker!
I put one one of the goats up for sale. She's getting far too loud. One person wanted to buy half of it--yep, she wanted to eat it. Girl accepted that we would be getting rid of one, though we're keeping the mean (quiet) one and the little one. She became more accepting and philosophical later on. Today she said, "If we kill one, can I take its skull to school for Show and Tell?"
I'm about a third of the way through the new screenplay. The novel (a more "serious" work) is continuing a little more slowly.
Watched The Descent finally. I went into it with a chip on my shoulder because some people told me THEY HUNGER sounded similar. The movie opened on "The Appalachian Mountains"--a uniform conifer forest! (The Southern Appalachians are largely hardwood forests and comprise one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world) And we knew it was in the South, see, because all the characters could get on the radio was bluegrass and preachers. Hee haw. In fact, the only people who listen to bluegrass around here are liberal hippies--you hear it in the coffee shops, not in the feed stores. Preachers still get on the radio, but usually only on Sunday morning, and usually accompanied by soulless Christian pop. (Oddly enough, the only bluegrass I really like is the old-time Gospel brand.)
And then there were the fresh animal corpses--moose and elk! We've never had moose and elk have been extinct for a century. Other than these errors, it was pretty good. No need to nitpick the evolutionary track of subterranean flesheaters, but suffice to say that there were only a couple of significant resemblances between the movie and my novel--the setting being one, and since they got it wrong and I know I got it right, that's one problem down. The other, well--let's see what happens if a movie ever gets made of my book.
My friend Marie put up some pictures of my goats at Blue Ridge Blog. Even in the winter, Marie manages to make the Blue Ridge Mountains look like the edge of heaven. New article up: The Business of Thriller Writing.
Bridge action with lame hint of budding romances for Everyman (he only has FOUR major romantic interests going at the same time--though two of the women may as well be men), throw in Smug Federal Agent acting in our collective best interests because we're too dumb to know what's good for us, kill off a few Tree-Hugging Hippie Crackpots, end with Big Action Climax (two or three pages, hardly worth the hours of droning and whining), and then coda to the Wonderful Plan for the world as espoused by those who are smarter than we are and don't believe pollution, greenhouse gases, and possible climate change are caused by aliens. This book brought to you by Mobil Exxon.
Now, I have to say, I suspect the climate is changing, though I don't know whether it's a temporary trend or a dramatic shift. I'm picking turnip greens in mid-January in a place where the growing season is usually five months. I doubt if there will be enough information in my lifetime for anyone to make an ironclad case for or against global warming. And I think petroleum is a great product at an affordable price.
But I so loathe condescension and manipulation. Especially when it's tedious. I'm beginning to think Crichton summed up his philosophy in "Westworld": If you don't listen to smart people, Yul Brenner will come hunt you down and kill you.
You have to admit, the teeth look really odd. I'm kind of fond of them, but I don't really have any use for them. This might sound weird, but I saved them because I knew I'd hold a contest some day and give them away. And what better time than when a vampire book is hitting the shelves?
Girl and I were going out to mess with the goats, and she had just applied toenail polish. I told her to wait until it dried but she said she'd wipe it off instead. "Beauty isn't important," she said. "Goats are what's important."
Why do I have a feeling this phrase will come up at a psychiatric session when she's in her teens?
Being a writer, I should probably make a book reference, but one of the most compelling fictional scenes of all time is when Hannibal is killing the guards in the middle act of "The Silence of the Lambs," peeling of one of the faces in order to make a getaway. And right near the end of the scene, most of the audience makes the horrifying realization that we are actually pulling for Hannibal to escape! Now that's what I call great storytelling.
I've been busy developing promotional fun and games for They Hunger, so keep your eyes peeled and your fangs bared for some cool giveaways--signed book covers, an advance reader copy, and something that was once was very, very close to me.
"Have the goats stopped screaming, Clarice?"
The outline for the next book is out, along with sample chapters. I'm glad I outlined this one and I think I might try to do so more often. It will really help down the line, especially because of the pharmacology elements I'll have to work out. I might even work up character biographies, but I have a good bit of research left to do. As the sage Mort Castle, the modern answer to Mark Twain, said in an Unplugged essay, if you write facts, you have to spend a lot of time looking stuff up. It's much easier to lie.
Had the second great goat adventure today--Minerva snagged her horns in the hogwire fence while pursuing some tree tips on the other side, where the grass is always greener. I had to cut the wire, but when spring comes, I expect such events to become much more common, so I'll have to run a line of electric wire before they can figure out they can actually climb the fence if they want.
Girl, a rookie Brownie, is involved in her first great highway robbery known as "Girl Scout cookie sales." I refuse to hit up my co-workers. I'll just stick the form up outside my cubicle and let the mob be self-selecting and let them worry about their own caloric intake and bad credit ratings. The American Way.
I've heard of writers who do extensive outlines that are nearly as long as the finished book. Others write 40 pages or so, while five to 10 pages seems to be the norm. I didn't outline any book until They Hunger. Most of the time I didn't even do my usual one-page synopsis that gave me the flavor of the book. Of course, I often wrote synopses and sometimes outlines after I was done, to assure the publisher that I actually had a story. And, to a degree, I know the course of the books in the back of my mind--Good will usually triumph, though the world won't be restored to full balance, and not all characters meet their goals. I pretty much know the arc of the current book (I won't use its title here because titles are apt to change).
The goat business is pretty good except for one factor I hadn't considered--when I moved to this mountain valley three years ago, I did it partly because I wanted peace and quiet (well, part of the reason was because I wanted goats, too). Now I've brought a new dimension of aggravation into my life--the goats bang on my walls at night and one has taken up braying nonstop. I don't think she's in heat yet--she gave birth five weeks ago. It might be she is getting spoiled from hand feeding and has become addicted to sweet cracked corn. The little goat Maria is still fun and is getting a bit tame, though she can't come in the house anymore because she likes to climb on the couch when it's time to piddle. Magenta is still a butthead but at least she's quiet. I guess I'll put up with them a while and see what happens, and in the meantime I have a tax write-off that mows the lawn.
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