Saturday, March 11, 2006

Everything "I" Know is Wrong (Well, Maybe not Everything)

Before we get to the main topic of this entry, I feel obliged to mention that the handful of readers who visit this blog have complained that a drawing of myself is on display instead of a real photo. Be careful what you ask for, I always say, but in the spirit of giving those five more than disinterested individuals what they want, I've supplied an un-retouched photo of myself elsewhere on this entry.

Okay, then. While you're setting that image to be wallpaper for your PC, let's get to the subject at hand.


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With My Finger in My "I"
Growing up, as I moved through high school and college, I had many good teachers who related to me a host of useful truisms aout writing fiction. Most of these I later confirmed through experience as I tried to improve my ham-fisted prose.

Let's talk about a few of them.

The first on my list won't be a surprise to most. It goes like this: poetry is the writing form most difficult to master, the short story second hardest and the novel, easiest. The difficult forms of writing are difficult because they require more discipline. As a result, a lot of first-time writers with marginal skills go for the novel. They spew out words like so-much diarrhea and expect people to lap it up.

Gag me.

Another maxim I believe to be true concerns the lesser merit of dialogue-heavy stories. There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare, usually works of skilled craftsmen that are adroit at conversational cadence and dialect and working for a specific effect. For the vast majority of semi-, quasi- and just plain non-professional writers, however, the precept holds true. Bad writers attain a false sense of security writing down the "voices they hear in their head" and the result is fifteen pages filled with the conversations of three to four people who speak exactly the same way. This leads to a dullness of tone and long stretches of totally unreal information-filled quotations that advance the "plot". Some publications even state that they won't take "dialogue-driven stories". I hear ya. I mean, I love writing conversation as much as anyone, and I hold firmly to the delusion that, on a good day, mine can be fast-paced and funny, but even so I feel driven to practice moderation and challenge myself by doing other things within the story. You can't grow if you keep taking the easiest path.

Okay, if you're still with me, and chances are you're not, let's tackle a third adage, from which today's entry gets its title. It goes something like this:

"First-person narrative takes less craft than third-person narrative."

I have believed this ever since college, and it's the main reason why I have experienced decades-long distress over the fact that first person comes easiest to me. I have seen at least one SF/F/H critic whom I respect savage an anthology for being "first-person heavy". I have seen at least one set of submission guidelines that discourages the same. I have tried, whenever possible, to force myself to write in third person. I've succeeded at least once, but it wasn't the rollicking good time I had when writing such first-person narratives as "Resurrected" and "Night Wounds Time", joy I must say was tempered in the aftermath of their creation because I could never shake this lingering doubt: they came relatively easy because they were lesser achievments.

Then the weirdest thing (now you can't say I didn't work "weird" and "fiction" into this entry) happened. Byron, the Chairperson of FWOMP, entered our second anthology, Monterey Shorts 2, in a contest for self-published anthologies. We didn't make the cut, but the rejection letter contained this sentence which was gratifying in an unexpected, cross-purposed way:

"A really good example of direct, challenging writing is "Night Wounds Time," which speeds on and dares the reader to keep up. Not coincidental that this story was first person."
Even more confounding was this statement which appeared later:

"How come no first person? Is this a forgotten art?"

Holey Moley! "A forgotten art!" Could it be that I was churning out a more exalted form of drek than I had previously thought? For those of you familiar with how I moan over the lack of recognition my stories get, this was nice reinforcement from someone I assume knows what they are talking about.

I'm going to celebrate by dusting off a short story I haven't worked on for awhile given its dubious first-person pedigree. It's called "Delf" and its about a bootlegged intoxicant with just a little extra...kick.

More on that later.


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My New Favorite Word: Putative
This may be semi-obscure--though what blog would be complete without a little self-indulgent obscurity?--but I found a new favorite word the other day. It was in, of all things, the sports page of The San Francisco Chronicle. It read something to the effect that "Jason Schmidt was the putative leader of the San Francisco pitching staff."

It's not often that the sports page initiates a trip to Dictionary.com, but there I was, looking up "putative" and finding out that it meant "Generally regarded as such; supposed".

This word was a great find for me, even though it's now drawing a resounding ho-hum from you. It's even that least sexy of the articles of speech, the adjective (and if you think adjectives are sexy, I have some photos of Margaretet Hamilton you can buy for cheap).

Anyway, "putative" has value for me because I write white papers for consultantcy to banks about subjects like "How to Prevent Fraud" and "A Holistic Approach to Compliancy." Okay, okay, that's even more boring than a reflection on the word putative, but hear me out. We have to set up all these papers with background research to provide objective support to the problem/solution the paper will pose, but I don't have a lot of space to do it in. So as a lead I always find myself considering writing things like:

"Experts agree that..."

or

"The common opinion is..."

It may be me, but I absolutely hate those kinds of phrases; they're far too general. And because these papers get reviewed with a fine-tooth comb not only by the consultants for whom I ghost write, but by the legal department, I am always paranoid that someone is going to come to me and say, "What experts? Or "Whose opinion?"

Well, my little word "putative" may not totally end my paranoia, but it certainly provides the opportunity to post such generalities in a more elegant way.

"Fraud, the putative bane of the financial services industry..."

"Putative opinion would have you believe that more technology is better..."

I love it. I knew reading the sports page would improve my writing. Don't ever let anyone tell you different. And if you think it's bereft of weird fiction, I need only cite the cosmic horror that is the Golden State Warriors' franchise.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Pebble Beach: The Consuming Dark

A wisp of the weird wafts through Pebble Beach.

I'm not talking haunted country clubs or some unspeakable dweller in a mansion's basement or sirens sweetly singing over the roar of the surf (while hidden in its mist).

I'm talking about what might be in the Dark.

I'm consumed by the Dark often--usually about 5 a.m., long before the stirring of any tourist, golfer or inhabitant. It’s a fringe benefit of being a dedicated runner with a gate pass.

What's the Dark?

Start with this. Pebble Beach may be gated, but it isn't a gated community or gated town as much as it is a gated forest, with houses and mansions interspersed between. In the foothills, right above the ocean, dwellings, no matter what their size, get swallowed by towering cypress and pine. Other places are simply remote. No people. No sidewalks. No street lamps. House lights, minimal. A solitary vehicle once every fifteen minutes.

Pick a winter morning without a moon and you’ll likely find yourself running mid-street through and into an absolute void. That's the Dark. On a gloomy day, shrouded in fog, it's positively womblike: wet, welcoming and warm (thanks to my body heat).

My craving for the Dark may not easily be understood, but despite its hold, sometimes there's a slightly disquieting element beneath. Much as you'd try to let go and lose yourself, you just...can't. It not a fear of muggers or anything human, more that there's (with apologies to Manly Wade Wellman), "Worse Things Waiting."

Sometimes I see things. A flickering orange light that I can’t catch up to. A barely visible hooded figure, marching by in the opposite direction, faceless as it turns to look at me. The sudden appearance of small animals, close to the ground, silhouettes darker than the

Dark, running in tandem with me until I cross to the other side. One October, a Jack Pumpkinhead figure (though less human in appearance), came to life, eyes glowing, bouncing on the fence where it hung, emitting a rusted creak of a laugh over and over again.

Sometimes I hear things, over my light footsteps on the pavement, through the sound of my even breaths. Your hearing gets sharper in the Dark, for better or worse. Might be the rustling of the wind in the pines, high above your head, or the call of a night bird in the distance. Though you're a mile away from the water, you can hear the seals clearly--sometimes their screams remind me of anguished children.

Other times noises seem significantly nearer, in the vegetation rolling up on the road. A fox perhaps, or a raccoon, or occasionally something bigger. Deer? There's mountain lion sightings around here all the time, maybe that's why few share my enthusiasm for the Dark, although many of the folks who tell such stories are older and prone to anxiousness. Or so they say.

Of course, if an "incident" did occur, and you were dragged off into the bushes by a carnivore or something else, no one would know for awhile, certainly not those nice septuagenarian gentlemen who drive the Pebble Beach Security trucks at that hour of the morning.


They always seem a little nervous. On their rounds. In the Dark. In the comforting, consuming Dark.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Webmistress Has Been Appeased!

You can now, indeed, get to this blog from http://www.fwomp.com, and while you're there find links to a few other blogs as well—even one by She Who Is Not to Be Named.

I'll be going to the pet store tomorrow to replace that dog and cat that I had to, well...you know...but it was worth the, er, sacrifice.

S. T. Joshi: A Critical Treasure

How many of you genre lovers get rankled by pretentious dilettantes that dismiss genre fiction out of hand? We have a burgeoning amateur writing scene around here, but the only genre that gets much love is that chestnut, the mystery novel. The Smart Set loves to diss the SF/F/H arena.

If only these would-be aesthetes would read the right selections from Straub, Oates, early King, even M. P. Shiel or Clark Ashton Smith. They'd (hopefully) gain a little pause and be shamed into seeing the error of their ways. Heck, the same applies to the erstatz highbrow who looks down at comic books. Okay, fine, just show me you can write prose on the level of Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman.

This is my cantankerous way of introducing a salient fact: while there is a variety of literary weird fiction from which to choose (although not enough), there is far less literary criticism of weird fiction. I really enjoy critical writing, often to an extent beyond reading original works of fiction or non-fiction, which is why I treasure S.T. Joshi. Through his editing prowess and meticulous critiquing he lends (in a hyperbolic mood I might say, "almost single-handedly") legitimacy to the sub-genre of weird fiction. I don't think it is a coincidence that H. P. Lovecraft's current recognition as a classic American author (his work can now be read under the Penguin Classics imprint--take that, ye doubters!) dovetailed with Joshi's unrelenting scholarship in this area. He is the pre-eminent Lovercraft authority, but I think his work in elevating lesser known (but great) contemporary authors such as T.E.D Klein and Thomas Ligotti just as important, and his critical evaluation of semi-obscure late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors invaluable. Joshi is discerning, he's a snob, which makes him a great signpost for those who want to broaden their weird fiction horizons. He doesn't give five star reviews to everything in sight. You can trust him.


Joshi's prolific as an author, too. Just check out his entry at amazon.com. He's also a key contributor to the massive (and, at 300 bucks, pricey) three-volume reference, Supernatural Literature of the World: An Encyclopedia.

Anybody looking down their nose at weird fiction should take even a cursory look at the sample essays on Joshi's website. They are spectacularly literate and (for me) more than a little intimidating. I'm reading one of his scholarly works right now, The Evolution of Weird Fiction, and it's awesome. I also picked up a collection he edited, Great Tales of Terror and it's a joy, as well, full of those late nineteenth/early twentieth century authors I referred to earlier. It even includes a story by the not-so-unkown Rudyard Kipling.

Not that I lay down and die for Joshi on every subject. He's a militant atheist with a habit of calling those who believe in God "stupid". Hey, everybody's entitled to an opinion, but I don't think C.S. Lewis or Flannery O'Connor or Einstein are particularly lacking in wit. Hell, I'm no genius, but my I.Q. clocks in at 143 and I believe there's a higher power, inscrutable as It may be.


But I digress. Check Joshi out. He'll make you see weird fiction in a whole new way. (Be forewarned: he's not light reading.) And if you get hold of him via correspondence, please let him know that I'd like to interview him for the FWOMP website. I made a request through the e-mail link posted on his website a few weeks ago, but so far no response. He's a busy guy. We'll see what happens.

And now for something completely different...


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A man, in the wake of an undefined traumatic event or series of events, sets out on a road trip to an undisclosed destination, from an undisclosed departure point, somewhere in America. Along the way he looks back on what may have transpired and looks forward to what might be, sometimes simultaneously. What happened has had a psychologically wrenching effect on him. He is prone to making comments like "God will not perform here anymore" and "I go and come back like bad dreams and symptoms." Does he recover? Find redemption? Does it even matter?


No, it's not the plot of an L. P. Davies novel, although it may sound like it. Rather it's the storyline of Echolyn's marvelous 2002 release, "Mei". A CD consisting of 49 minutes of music weaved together into a single composition, this is a slice of American progressive rock that demands exposure. Simultaneously conjuring up introspection and raw emotion, the piece is beautiful and evocative and powerful all at once. The recurring musical themes that are reworked and reshaped throughout remain with you after three or four listens. Layered, intricate vocals compliment top-notch musicianship. The whole thing is great, with the first eleven minutes being among the best that popular music has to offer. Echolyn remain one of our most literate and accomplished bands. Like S.T. Joshi, they are an American treasure. Check out the review at Ground and Sky, the most literate (and reliable) progressive rock review site on the Web. (And when you visit, say "Hi," to Brandon for me.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Pacific Grove: Haven of Horror?

Hi, Whoever's Out There:

I've been intensely pursuing this blog thing for months, particularly in the context of being part of our Fiction Writers of the Monterey Peninsula (FWOMP) website. I think a link to this blog from that website will show up any day, if the Webmistress smiles down on us with favor. Maybe I'll have to sacrifice something or someone to make sure she does (just joking please Webmistress have mercy).

Anyway, this may be boring to you, but I need to tell you what FWOMP is before we proceed. It's a group of regional writers, of which I am a part, that have self-published two books, Monterey Shorts and Monterey Shorts 2: More on the Line. The volumes have ended up being fairly successful regionally, because we required the stories be set in and around the Monterey Peninsula. People like to read about this area and the books have ended up selling pretty regularly, so I think its good to link up to the FWOMP website.

Now unlike August Derleth, who kept his regional and weird writing mostly separate, I figured I'd go the Lovecraft and King route and try to weave the two together. And, no, I am not saying I am in their league, just that I was inspired by their example.

See, I live in this little town named Pacific Grove, and since I had absolutely no intention (at least for the present) to write anything but weird fiction, I decided to see what I could do in a local setting for the stories in the book. Pacific Grove is pretty quiet, really foggy, and has a whole side to it that the tourists never see. Plus Clark Ashton Smith lived here for awhile and his house, which is on our main street, Lighthouse Avenue, boasts one of his sculptures (which I incorporated into "Night Wounds Time," from Monterey Shorts 2, by the way).

I thought I'd try to exploit these kinds of uniquenesses, and I thought I had done a pretty good job but I have a feeling that I'm in the wrong market. Not that we get all that many reviews, but I get the feeling people really aren't picking up on my stories.

Of course, you might be saying to yourselves that the pieces themselves might be crappy. There's one sure way for you to find out, of course.


Anyway, the dilemma is this: the readers attracted to our books seem to be more enamored with historical fiction. While remaining commercial, I tried to give my stories several different layers and have a little self-referential fun and even play with the storytelling timeline a bit. The response to date, putting it mildly, has been a dull thud. The other stories are clearly getting the lion's share of the attention.

Now don't get me wrong, I've only written about seven or eight complete stories so it's not like I've been banging my head against the wall, but weird fiction is a hard sell even in a general market and in a niche market like this, maybe even a harder one.


That's one of the reasons I decided to start this blog, to give me an outlet which will allow me to vent (which I just did) and delve more deeply into a subject that I really love, weird fiction, especially its literary and older, more classic flavors. It needs to have more of a presence in our local scene here because the potential for regional weird fiction is astounding, IMHO. It needs an advocate. I guess I'm that advocate (noun) and this blog is one small way to advocate (verb).

In upcoming posts I'll be discussing, hopefully in a distinctly non-pretentious way, various aspects of the art of creating weird fiction, and making observations on some of the writers, trends and pitfalls I see regarding the subject. I hope to be supplying a lot of good links, too, for people who have the same interests as me.

Well, I've spent far too much time on this already, so I'm going to get out of here. See you all soon.