Thursday, August 30, 2007

Some Happenings, and a Question

1. Lana's home! Yeah! She got in late Wednesday night and it's very good to have her back.

2. From what I hear, Night to Dawn #12 was released today, with a story by me in it called "When the White Mist." And for some synchronicity, that piece was originally written for Lana.

Now for the question. I was working on an advice piece today on writing and I came up with the following as a possible suggestion. I'm just not sure it's a worthwhile one, or if I've thought it through carefully enough. Any feedback would be appreciated.


In real life, people get flat tires. They run out of gas. They get sick. They bump into people they know. They have a thousand other experiences. If used correctly, such everyday “surprises” can significantly increase suspense, and can produce excellent cliffhangers.

Consider, an undercover police officer is working a drug buy when he realizes that one of the men approaching him is someone he knows, someone who will recognize him. End the scene now and you’ve upped the tension. Or, our hero has been secretly tailing a terrorist who knows where a bomb is planted. They’ve traveled so far, she’s worried. She glances at her instrument panel and sees the gas gage on “E.” Drop the scene here and you’ll leave the reader wondering what the hero is going to do.

Anything that tosses an obstacle into the hero’s path can ratchet up the suspense. This works especially well if it comes as a surprise in a critical moment.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Critical Writing

I don't think writers always have to strive for conscious awareness of everything they're doing in their prose. But sometimes you need to cut under the flesh of a story to the bones. How important is word choice, sentence length, paragraph length to producing a specific effect, such as creating suspense? What makes some dialogue sound stilted, other dialogue sound natural? How does punctuation change the flow of words? To analyze such qualities I think it’s best to begin by studying the work of other writers, work that you are not so close to as your own. I’d suggest you choose writers for study who are better than you.

One possible strategy is to retype passages or stories that you are interested in studying, not as a mere exercise but as an honest attempt to understand the process the other writer followed. Don’t even allow yourself to edit the other writer’s work at first—which you’ll probably want to do—but faithfully reproduce it before going back and trying to make it your own. Retyping a story this way puts you in the writer’s shoes, with your feet on the stones of the trail that he or she followed. Just reading a story, even if you’re trying to study it, is more like driving that same trail in a Jeep. You might see the obstacles, but they won’t bruise your heel. You need those heels bruised.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Big Stakes Revisited

Michelle pointed out that what she calls "realistic domestic fiction" (RDF), but which I typically just call call literary fiction, often has smaller "pay offs" than genre fiction. She's right, and most of my commentary from yesterday relates primarily to genre fiction. Michelle also points out that even "RDF" typically has some level of pay off, and that such stories are easiest to sell.

Steve points out that pay off can be very different between short stories and novels. My yesterday's comments generally were focused on short stories. As Steve suggests, the pay off in novels comes primarily from what happens to the characters (although a satisfying plot ending is important to). In short stories, we don't live with the characters very long so the ending has to develop most of it's punch from the conditions of the tale itself. Twist endings, in particular, can work well in short stories but are much harder to pull off at novel length. In fact, they usually feel like cheats in the novel.

I heard many years ago that writing short stories and writing novels are different art forms. I've never totally agreed with that thought, but there are certainly enough differences to make it difficult at times to transition between the two. I enjoy reading and writing them both. Anyone have any thoughts on this topic?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

The Big Stakes Score

A professionally-written story will not necessarily sell. The prose can be good, the characters interesting, the plot possibilities mysterious, and the ending can kill it all if it’s cliché, or goofy, or low stakes. From TV, consider the infamous Dallas fiasco when a whole “season” turned out to be Pamela Ewing’s “dream.” Consider the miniseries It where the monster turns out to be a “giant spider.” Consider the story where the protagonist realizes at the end that he's been “dead” all along, or the tale where an abusive husband seeking to cheat on his wife meets a woman at a bar who turns out to be a…wait for it…vampire.

There’s no “payoff” in these endings. The “it was all a dream” is actually an insult to those who have invested their emotions in a work. The “guy who discovers he’s dead,” or who cheats on his wife only to meet a “vampire,” is too easy. The “giant spider” is just lame. Modern readers especially want more.

I mentioned one of my unsold stories the other day, “A Curse the Dead Must Bear.” I think it hasn’t sold because the ending doesn’t pay off. A man falls down the stairs and is declared dead. He seems dead, but his consciousness continues. He is aware of everything around him but cannot escape the decaying prison of his body, and he finds that every other “dead” person in the cemetery with him is the same. He can hear them murmuring while, of course, the “living” hear nothing. He begins to hate the “living” and is comforted by only one thought, that they will soon be in the same situation.

Big deal! I thought the idea that every dead person’s consciousness would be trapped within their decaying shell was interesting, but that point is revealed midway through the story and other than that what is the reader's payoff? The protagonist cannot “do” anything about his situation. He can only hate, and the target of his hate is perfectly safe. This is “low stakes.”

The cheating guy who meets the vampire is low stakes, as well. We can see that ending (or something like it) coming a mile away. And, two, the guy is getting what he deserves. Other than a little “he had it coming” feeling the reader isn’t getting much emotional payoff. The ending doesn’t leave us particularly happy, sad, disgusted, or afraid. It leaves us flat.

Want another example? A guy plans to commit suicide because he can’t stand his life. He wants oblivion. But when he finally gets up the guts to do it he finds that his consciousness continues and he’s in Hell. End of story. And low stakes.

How do you avoid low stakes endings? One way is to consider the low stakes “ending” as the beginning instead. Cheating guy meets vampire at the “start” of the story, and gets turned. Goes home to torment the wifey, thinking about how much fun he’s going to have now that he’s a supernatural abuser. He finds that his wife is having an affair too. And her paramour is a werewolf who, shall we say, “rips abusive husband a new one.” Or maybe he finds his wife having an affair with the female vampire who turned him, and they only want him to watch. Or maybe… Well, you get the idea.

You have to ask, is the ending to your story worth the effort that the reader has put into it? Will they go "cool," will they shake their head in disgust, or will they just not care? You only want the first result.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Batching it, and writing

Well, Lana is out of town for a few days to visit relatives and friends in Canada. The house seems awfully big without her. And it sure is quiet. Not that Lana is loud, but there's no background sound of TV or music, no footsteps in the kitchen (except for that ghost and he doesn't bother me much), no sound of Lana cursing the bird-seed-eating squirrels as "rat bastards." I sure have become accustomed to her coming into my office on occassion to rub my shoulders or bring me a drink or popcorn. She's such a sweetie, but I imagine I'll get through these next few days all right. It'll be good to have her back on Wednesday.

I was rereading an unsold piece of mine called "A Curse the Dead Must Bear" the other day and I think I understand what the problem is. It's not badly written, but there's no real payoff at the end. The "revelation" isn't surprising enough; the stakes are too small. I've sold a few pieces like this before but only if the prose was poetical. This story is more hard boiled and doesn't lend itself to that type of prose. I think that we have to remember that whether we're writing novels or short stories the end has to be both surprising and it has to pay off on some large scale. My next post is going to deal with how to determine the "large scale." I haven't given it enough thought yet. But I will.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Punch it Up Too

Candice had a great post on Tuesday about "Punch it Up." This is something we've been talking about in our writing group for a while now, and I'm beginning to believe that it may be the most important piece of writing advice I've ever gotten. Check it out. I've yet to find any weaknesses with the advice, although I have found it difficult to implement at times.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Reflections for the Summer of my Prose

Last day of summer vacation for me. School begins tomorrow, and the semester will be busy with me teaching a new class, Psychopharmacology. Our enrollments are up again after Katrina so the classes will be big. But I’ve had a relaxing summer to prepare and there will be pleasure in seeing my colleagues and students again.

What an incredible summer it has been, the most productive ever where my writing is concerned, and also just one of the happiest I can remember since the days of a less-than-carefree youth. I’ve realized how truly simple my needs are, how much of a balm the uncomplicated life is to my spirit. For the past three months I’ve risen in the morning around 9:30, spent a leisurely bit of time blogging while I watch the cardinals, blue jays, doves, chickadees and woodpeckers through my office window feeding at our backyard buffet. In the afternoon I’ve written, with ample breaks for reading on the deck or taking a nap. In the evening I’ve written more, with time out to spend with Lana, or with an occasional break in the routine as we’ve gone out to eat.

There have been moments of excitement and/or tension. A trip to Cross Plains for Howard Days. A journey home to see my mom. An SF conference and a book signing. These things were enjoyable, although some did create a little anxiety. But overall it has been a placid time, a time for reflection and work that, to me, is meaningful.

Two novels published this summer, although both were written well before. A third in the works. And now the poetry chapbook. These are things I’d hoped to accomplish years ago. But the timing was not right and that is one thing that has made this summer great. For the first time in my life, my timing has been good.

As for the writing I’ve been doing? Articles for The Illuminata and other places, a revision of the Writing in Psychology text that I wrote a few years back with some colleagues, and the “very near” completion of another major nonfiction project of which I’ll talk about at some later date.

I used to get irritated when people would make a comment like: “You teachers have it made.” They’d usually elaborate by telling me how I was off every summer and had so many vacation days during the school year, like at Christmas and Thanksgiving. I’d get irritated because I've had exactly one summer off since 1986, and most “supposed” school year vacations are actually times when teachers grades tests and papers and make up examinations and plan for the next semester’s courses. But this summer, I can see people being envious of my time off. I don’t blame them. In a few weeks I’ll be envious of myself.

A pleasant aspect of the summer has also been the interplay here in the blogosphere. I’ve enjoyed having more time to explore folks’ blogs and get to know them. No doubt I’ll have to cut back a bit on that as the semester rolls in. I don’t intend to quit blogging but I imagine my posts and my commenting will inevitably slack off. Please don’t imagine that this is lack of interest in what all of you have to say. But hey, even us teachers have to work sometime.
Now, on to a great autumn.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Wanting the Mouth of a Lover

I don't often talk about projects before they are in print but the word is actually out in some quarters about this so I'll say something here. Spec House of Poetry (Link to the right)is planning to publish a Chapbook of my work under the title Wanting the Mouth of a Lover. All the poems are experimental haiku, primarily centered around the theme of vampirism. J. Bruce Fuller, who runs Spec House, is an energetic fellow with a passion for poetry. He's on the cutting edge of the burgeoning Scifaiku movement, and also publishes a magazine called The Shantytown Anomaly, which has presented some award winning and award nominated poetry in the last couple of years.

I'm very happy about the chapbook. It'll be my first. I talked to J. quite a bit at Babel Con and we sat on a poetry panel together. (Cons are great for making and renewing contacts.) I sent him two possible collections for chapbooks and he really liked the haiku grouping. He talks a bit about it at the Spec House site under "A Welcoming." Some of the poems that are to be included in the chapbook have been previously published, but most have not. I'm not sure when this will be published. It seems most likely to be late this year but it's up to J.

J's own poetry is featured in Aurore Australe, which I mentioned here a few posts back and which can be found at the Spec House site. His personally blog is here.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Illuminata In The House

The new Illuminata is up today. I’ve got a piece in it called "Writing With Attitude." There’s also another piece by Bret Funk on writing entitled "Useless Words and Weak Writing."

Yesterday and today were spent mostly working on syllabi and notes for school, which is now approaching at freight train rate. And I’m caught square in the tracks with no chance to leap to either side. Oh well, can’t complain since without my job I wouldn’t be able to eat or do pretty much any of the other things I enjoy. But damn it was a nice summer.

In the next day or so I want to post a piece called “Reflections for the Summer of my Prose,” which is a take off on Karl Edward Wagner’s title “Reflections for the Winter of my Soul.” Anyway, in that piece I’ll try to take a brief look back at what has probably been my most productive summer ever in writing. Everyone here who has read and commented on my blog is a part of that.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007


Candice has a piece on the importance of titles on her blog, and on the difficulty of finding good ones. I enjoy a good title very much myself, and though I’m unlikely to buy a book by its cover there is no doubt that a provocative title draws me in like the moths who come at night to circle our deck light. I agree that titles are critical.

I also enjoy just making up titles, and quite often an evocative title that I’ve come up with has “triggered” the basic idea for a story that follows. At other times the story and idea seem to come together as a pair. Sort of like, if you order now you’ll also receive… But there are plenty of times when the perfect (or at least decent) title doesn’t strike me and then I have to work for it. Here are some of the things I do, although I don’t know if these will help Candice at all.

1). I love poetic sounding titles, Nightmare with Angel (Stephen Gallagher), She is the Darkness (Glen Cook), and where is the best place to find poetic titles? From reading poetry. (Apologies to Stewart Sternberg.) I read a lot of poetry, and write it. Most of my favorite titles from my own work have come from poems I’ve written, or were jotted down first as possible lines in poems. “A Cold of Snow and Ghosts” and “Wanting the Mouth of a Lover” are examples of this, both titles for vampire related stuff. I’ve sold a poem with the line in it, “The Language of Scorpions,” and I’m still waiting for the story that should go with that title. Reading poetry also, for me at least, seems to shift my brain into the mode that allows me to string words together in something approximating pretty. Maybe the process will be the same for you.

2). I’ve also found quite often that if I can’t discover a title from outside a story I can discover one within. What I mean by this is that the perfect title, or at least a good workable one, often lurks in the prose that you’ve used to actually construct a tale. My story “Splatter of Black” was originally titled “Turnabout is Fair Play,” which is both awkward and cliché. The editor wanted a title change so I went through the story line by line until I found the phrase “splatter of black.” “Thief of Eyes” came about in much the same way. You might be able to speed up the process of finding such lines in your own tales by using the computer’s search capabilities. If you’ve written a horror story, search for words like “black,” “night,” “fear,” “shadow,” “hate,” etc, and see what phrases pop out at you from your own piece. If it’s a romance, how about searching for “love,” “kiss,” “embrace,” “sunrise,” “dream,” etc. If you write romance you probably have a better idea of good words than I do. If it’s a mystery, what about “clue,” “murder,” “weapon,” “blood,” etc.

3). Some people borrow titles from the classics. Hemingway did this all the time. The Bible seems a good place to find possible titles, especially the psalms and proverbs. The King James version is actually quite poetic, which is fitting since parts of it seem to have been written by Shakespeare. (Speaking of Shakespeare, he has a great line that I want to use as a title or in a poem somewhere, sometime. It’s “We mourn in black. Why mourn we not in blood?”) But classics such as The Arabian Nights, or The Odyssey can be great sources for possible titles.

Anyway, there are my suggestions for finding titles. They work for me. Maybe they’ll work for others.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

A Writer on the Run, Revisited

Two years ago I wrote a piece for The Illuminata called "A Writer on the Run," about my experiences after Katrina. In that piece I talked about how I didn't have a problem writing nonfiction after the storm but that I couldn't seem to get my heart back into writing fiction. Last night I wrote an addendum to that essay. It's below:

It’s August 2007 as I write this. It’s been almost exactly two years since Katrina. Large parts of Greater New Orleans still lie devastated and Lana and I have actually moved thirty miles north to a small community called Abita Springs, Louisiana. I still work at Xavier, which is struggling to recover, but Lana and I both needed to escape the city. We have a place in the country now, and though I certainly don’t enjoy the commute it’s good to see trees and stars again. It reminds me of where I grew up.

I’ve made a partial return to writing fiction. Some nights my heart comes all the way up to the window on the wings of whippoorwills. Sometimes it hides further back in the woods, and though I know it’s there I can’t quite catch it. But I’m putting food out for it; I’m building it a place to nest. I don’t want it tamed all the way; I just want to pet it once in a while. I want it to come and sit with me again, like it used to, so it can tell stories to my fingers as they move on the keyboard in the dim light of the room where I sit to write.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Bits and Pieces

The title is both appropriate to this post and also the title of a poetry collection that I read recently by Greg Schwartz. I had not heard much about Schwartz previously to picking his chapbook up at Babel Con, but I enjoyed it quite a bit and will seek out more of his work. The chapbook is 15 poems and combines some dramatic ones with quite a few humorously twisted pieces. "The Monster in My Closet" is one of the latter, and was probably my favorite piece in the work. The last line makes it. Another poem, "The Dead have Ears," reminded me very much of a story I wrote a couple years back but have not yet sold called "A Curse the Dead Must Bear." There is some weird similarity between the two works. The best of the dramatic pieces was "Farmhouse," which was quite eerie and which I liked very much.

If you'd be interested in picking up Bits and Pieces or other poetical works check out Spec House of Poetry. Spec House is actually run by a good friend of mine, J. Bruce Fuller. I mentioned seeing him at Babel Con in a previous post. He's got a pamphlet available at his store that includes three poems of mine, as well as poems by J and Robin Mayhall, and I think it's actually free. If you want to check it out, go to his site, scroll down to his entry on "Babel Con," and you'll see the information. His storefront is accessed near the right side top of the screen there.

Other than that, I made good progress on writing today but I'm looking this evening toward getting started on my preparations for the upcoming school year. Drat it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Plot versus Episode

I was talking to a new friend named Don Lee yesterday over a few cold brews and we were on the subject of writing. I mentioned that I’d found my Taleran novels quite a bit easier to write than Cold in the Light, and as I started “trying” to verbalize why I think it finally came to me. The Taleran novels are “episodic” books while “Cold” is much more plot driven. The Taleran novels have a beginning and an end, and a bunch of linear scenes strung between those two points like beads on a necklace. “Cold” is more like a Mandela, or a maze. The scenes are all dependent on each other whereas in the Taleran books the scenes can stand alone more easily. In fact, I could have rather easily lengthened or shortened the Taleran novels by adding or deleting scenes with a minimal amount of rewriting, almost as if they were constructed on a modular pattern. To substantially lengthen or shorten Cold in the Light would have required major reconstructive surgery on the whole book.

This got me thinking about whether other books fall into these patterns, and I think clearly that they do. Sword & Planet books, in general, are episodic. So is most Space opera, and so are most westerns that I’ve read, particularly the works of Louis L’Amour. Thrillers are typically not, though, and I suspect that most mysteries are not. What about romance novels? The ones I’ve read, which is admittedly not many, have been pretty episodic. Most horror novels are episodic, although Peter Straub’s work shows us that not all are.

I’ve also realized that my “preferred” reading is for “episodic” works. I certainly love good plot-driven works and some of them, like Ghost Story, are among my favorite reads ever. But typically, when I reach for my to-be-read pile and grab the first book that strikes my interest it is episodic in nature. I wonder why.

Anyone else have any thoughts on this subject?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

That Which Survives

I got back late last night from Babel Con in Baton Rouge, which is about an hour and a half drive for me. It’s a one day con and I had a lot of fun, though I was very tired by the end of the day. I was on two panels. The first one was me speaking on Alien Evolution. I had a very good turnout. There wasn’t a single empty chair in the room and a couple of folks were standing. I forgot to count the chairs but it was around 25 or 30. I thought it went well and several people congratulated me later on it or wanted to ask more questions about what I talked about. It was a good audience and they really got into the audience participation parts.

The second panel was myself and two other poets, but we had a bad time slot (opposite the cocktail party with the stars and the showing of the Rocky Horror Picture show) and we only had a few folks. Still we had some fun discussion among ourselves and with the few attendees. As I joked with the other panelists, though, this is what we’re up against with trying to support and grow genre poetry—a lot of apathy on the part of the mainstream SF/Fantasy/Horror community.

The other poets were J. Bruce Fuller and Robin Mayhall. J is the editor of The Shantytown Anomaly, and a fine poet in his own right. He’s a rising star in the SciFaiku movement in genre poetry. Robin has also been working in SciFaiku, and is currently a poetry editor for the online journal Breath & Shadow. (Thanks also to Dixie and Steve for coming to our panel.)

Other than panels, I hung out with a lot of folks I knew and met quite a few that I didn’t. I bought a book from M. B. Weston called A Prophecy Forgotten, which is her first book but which looks to be pretty good. She was certainly an energetic speaker. I hung out with Bret Funk, the editor of The Illuminata, the online newsletter for which I write a column. I got a signed photo from Lesley Aletter, who is a stunt woman in Hollywood. She doubled for Sigourney Weaver in the last Alien movie, and has been in many other movies besides, including The Devil’s Rejects.

Most enjoyable for me, I got a signed photo by Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the original Batman TV series, and who also played many other roles in TV and film. My favorite role by her was as Losira in the Star Trek episode “That Which Survives.” This is the still picture I got and she signed it to me with “I am for you, Charles,” which if you are any kind of Star Trek Geek like me you’ll know was her basic “catchphrase” in that show.

All in all, a good time was had by all. But I’m a little relieved to be back at the Hermitage with my signings and appearances over for the moment. Today I’m decking it.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Alien Evolution

OK, here are some of my thoughts on the alien evolution concept.

Some well developed ones: The “Predator” works because of the care taken in developing the physiology and the society. Especially nice is the fact that they see heat signatures. The suggestion is that they evolved under a hotter sun than humans. It also suggests a reptilian background, since a number of reptiles have this capability.

Problems: They are SO humanoid. They also have a society based pretty clearly on some savage human societies. Head hunters and warrior societies. This does clearly suggest a predatory evolution for them, which is a nice touch.

Alien, from the Alien movies. An excellent one because time was spent developing this elaborate life cycle, which is not unlike that of quite a few insects. They have insect and reptilian characteristics. It’s interesting that the eggs are soft rather than hard, which really suggests early evolving reptiles on earth.

Problems: Although quite a few insects make internal toxins and even release these into the atmosphere, the acidic blood is a little too corrosive. Eating through the kind of metal used to make spaceships would be quite a feat. Also, the growth rate of the alien in the first movie is too extreme. Growth rates can be high for some insects, and even for fish and birds, but nutrients are needed. You only get out what you put in.

The Thing: John Carpenter’s version. I really like this alien. It’s a cool enemy. But I have to think it’s pretty unrealistic. Plenty of one celled organisms grow by absorbing other cells, and the “Thing” is supposed to be like a collection of cells. Mimicry is also very common in evolution and the Thing is an extreme extension of that. However, knowing how complex the human brain is, and how complex the cell structures are in a human, I can’t imagine an organism that could assimilate so perfectly in such a short period of time and be absolutely believable as the person it assimilated. It’s still cool, though.

Some bad aliens: The “Space Herpes” from Ice Pirates. Clearly this was meant to be a take-off on the Chest burster scene from alien but I didn’t think it worked. Or that it was even funny.

From Buck Rogers, the TV series. Hawk is descended from a bird-like species. His only connection is, apparently, that he has feathers on his head instead of hair. Minor “cosmetic” changes to a human are Not Good Enough. Quite a few Star Trek aliens fall into this category. The Borg are intriguing, though.

From books? I thought ERB having the human-type Barsoomians lay eggs instead of bear live young was pretty weak. I love these books but the Human-egg-thing is definitely not an evolutionary likelihood.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Babel Con

This is a busy week for me. After finishing the signing in Covington on Tuesday I largely took yesterday off and sat on the deck. In the evening I started to work on my panel for BabelCon this coming Saturday. I’ll be talking about Alien Evolution, although I’m hoping to give no more than about a 10 minute talk followed by a lot of discussion with and within the audience. I’ve got a number of questions to ask the audience if no one speaks up.

Since more people watch common movies than read common books, I’m going to ask for both good and bad examples of realistic aliens from TV and film. Then I hope we can get into some freewheeling discussion about why one is good or bad, based on the general concepts of evolution.

How about the group here. Anyone have any specific candidates for “poorly” designed aliens? How about “well” designed ones?