Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Dreams in the Fire, A Review

Dreams in the Fire (2011)
Edited by Mark Finn and Chris Gruber, Cover by Jim and Ruth Keegan.

Dreams in the Fire contains stories and poems inspired by Robert E. Howard. Proceeds go to Project Pride, the community organization from Cross Plains, Texas, that takes care of the Robert E. Howard House and museum in Cross Plains. All the authors in this collection are long-term fans of Robert E. Howard, and though not all are professional writers, their passion for Howard’s work shows clearly through. Even those who have not been widely published bring their best to these tales, and they can all feel pride in their work. Here’s my take on the pieces.

Introduction by Rusty Burke: Discusses Robert E. Howard Fandom, particularly the group known as REHupa, which almost every contributor to this collection is either a current or past member of.

“A Gathering of Ravens” by Charles Gramlich: My story about a sword slinging female warrior.

“The Rhymester of Ulm” by James Reasoner: A thief robs a bard of his magic pen. Or does he? Reasoner is the biggest name author in the collection.

“The Word” by Rob Roehm: “Carl Macon owned the land, all of it.” A flash fiction western style tale about taking a stand.

“This Too Will Go Its Way” by Barbara Barrett: A fine poem that evokes a strong sense of nostalgia.

“CSI: Kimmeria” by Robert Weinberg: Weinberg is also a widely known name. This one is written as a kind of play. I’m not the most sensitive guy but I thought I detected a satirical and humorous edge.

“Bloody Isle of the Kiyah-rahi” by Christopher Fulbright: Robert Howard wrote many pirate stories and this one is a fine tribute to that genre.

“Son of Song” by Frank Coffman: A tribute to Howard and my favorite poem in the collection.

“Avatar” by Jimmy Cheung: Good sword & sorcery fiction. It had my favorite opening line of any of the tales: “It was a corpse city infested with the living.” I would like to see an expanded version of this at some point.

“Belit’s Refrain” by Barbara Barrett: Belit is my favorite female character from the Howard stories. This was a very nice poem that captured her essence.

“Now With Serpents He Wars” by Patrick R. Burger: A Knights of the Round Table story. I much enjoyed the use of sorcery in this one.

“Best to Let it Lie” by Danny Street: A poem that captures the kind of nihilistic outlook on life that Howard’s poetry often expressed.

“Two Dragons Blazing: A Tale of the Barbarian Kabar of El Hazzar” by Angeline Hawkes: Kabar must find a way into hell to save his beautiful sister.

“The Nights’ Last Battle” by Amy Kerr: A long poem that captures Howard’s voice well when he was writing his more bombastic style of poetry.

“Sailor Tom Sharkey and the Phantom of the Gentlemen Farmer’s Commune” by Mark Finn: A humorous tale that reflects the kind of storytelling that Howard handled so deftly with his humorous boxing stories of Sailor Steve Costigan.

“I Am a Martian Galley Slave!” by David A. Hardy: My favorite story in the collection. The use of language is superb and the characterization is excellent. This one deserves to be nominated for an award.

“A Spirit on the Wind” by Frank Coffman: Another fine tribute to Howard by Coffman.

“Dead River Revenge” by Chris Gruber: This was my second favorite story in the collection. Lots of brutal action and a setting that recalls the Conan story, “Beyond the Black River.” The character of “Billy” is the most Howardian character in the collection without being a pastiche of a Howard character.

“The Moon” by Barbara Barrett: A very short, almost haiku ode to the battle between the sun and moon.

“No Other Gods” by Gary Romeo: Essentially a Conan pastiche, although using a character named Tanan.

“A Meeting in the Bush” by Morgan Holmes: Not so much a story as a sketch of an interesting meeting between two iconic characters in the jungle. I think you’ll be able to figure out the characters pretty easily.

“Blades of Hell” by Don Herron: An appropriately bloodthirsty ending poem.

Afterword by Mark Finn: Talks a bit about putting this project together.

Notes on the Contributors: Short pieces about each of the featured authors. You get to find out how most of them are connected to Howard fandom.

I highly recommend this collection, and it’s for a very good cause.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Over at Novel Spaces today

I'm over at Novel Spaces today, talking about the use and overuse of description in fiction. I hope you'll join me.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Writing and Sensuality

Sensuous writing, to me, has little to do with sexuality. It has to do, in large part, with engaging the senses, of enmeshing the reader in a world of lush experience. Ray Bradbury is a sensuous writer. Robert E. Howard was, despite the fact that he is often considered a hyper-masculine author. When you read Bradbury or Howard you feel the chill wind, taste bitter drink, hear the crack of ice, and pant from the heat. But the details are put together in such a way as to create a sense of exotic beauty. And there is more. Sensuous writing not only excites the senses, it creates a mood, most often a melancholy one.

Poul Anderson was a master of sensuous writing. His book The Broken Sword, or his long story “The Queen of Air and Darkness” illustrate Anderson’s love of language and command over mood. They sing with poetry. Even the darkest imagery is combined with a sense of sad beauty.

For me, and feel free to say if you disagree, I find the most sensuous writing in the fantasy genre, followed by science fiction. Mainstream literature seems to be suspicious of sensuous writing, and hard bitten genres like noir and crime fiction try to immerse the reader in gritty detail. These stories also create a mood, but not one that is infused with beauty. There are times when I want just that kind of mood, but more often than not I seek out the beautiful, even if that beauty is tinged with darkness.

I strive for sensuality when I write, and I think I’ve gotten closest to it in my fantasy work, such as in the Talera Trilogy, and in some of the stories that appeared in Midnight in Rosary. While many of the stories in “Midnight” feature vampires, most of these are not ‘horror’ vampires but ‘fantasy’ vampires. And there is a clear difference. Sensuality is important to fantasy vampires, while gritty savagery is the drape that clothes horror vampires. Some time back, I put up a link to a free story from Midnight in Rosary. I’ll post it again here since it indicates the kind of sensuality I’m talking about (and in this case has some sexuality as well.) The story is called “The Poetry of Blood” and the link is here.

I’ll end with a couple of quick passages from the Talera series, these two from Wings Over Talera. Here, for the first time, Ruenn MacLang meets Vohanna. With Vohanna, I hoped to create a villain who would combine both beauty and evil, attraction and threat. These are important elements of sensuality in the language of fantasy literature. At least, I think so.

1). There were no adornments anywhere upon Vohanna—-no web of black pearls in her silken flag of hair, no bright jewels at her finely sculpted ears, no copper brassards clasping her upper arms. She wore no kohl to darken her sable lashes, no paint upon lips that were already riper than the rising sun.

In her form, she looked guileless and fragile. In her face, she looked...innocent. But her gaze was ancient and black upon mine, with firefly runes twining and beating in the depths of her glance. I felt that glance like a bruise.

2). Vohanna took another step toward me. And a third. Down the skull steps from her throne she came, and it seemed her sandals spurned the dusky wine that cascaded beneath her feet. Her eyes teemed with scarlet embers and with...other things.

“Kneel to me, Ruenn,” she said.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Razored Zen Interview: Mark C. Durfee

My next Razored Zen Author Interview features Mark Durfee. Mark is the first poet I’ve interviewed. Mark is a Detroit poet, what very well may be a breed apart. I’ve never met Mark in person but I know him from the online blogging community, and from his “Stink” trilogy, which includes Stink, The Line Between, and Scent of the Garden Within. I have read each of the volumes and reviewed them on Goodreads. Good stuff. So, here’ssssss Mark. (RZ represents Razored Zen and you know the drill on MCD by now.)

RZ: Tell us a little about yourself outside of writing. Home town. Family. Job. That sort of thing.

MCD: On steamy day in July of ’54 Mother Durfee had her second baby boy who was her fourth child. Though she had one more, two years later, she knew the oddest of all her children had been born already. That’d be me. I was born in Detroit and for the past 57 years never had a permanent address that didn’t have Detroit in it. I was born at the right time to be able to see the city at the tipping point of 1.7 million people to the current 700 thousand.

Our household was one of very literate, highly educated people, but I only paid half the fare so I became literate but not formally educated beyond high school. I enlisted in the navy at age 17 to get away from a mixed bag of problems, some self caused, some attributable to others but in either case now 40 years later I know it was the right thing to do. I may be the only honorably discharged veteran in the history of the United States to never fire a weapon, not even in boot camp. I had the compartment watch duty that day and was never rescheduled to hit the firing range.

My father went from his HS diploma to a PhD. In chemical engineering in the 5 years after WWII, my mother had her MSW by age 23 (social worker) and all of my siblings have advanced degrees, while I still need twenty some credits to get an associates degree in something. The thing about that much education in one house does is there were always books, newspapers, and an expectation that we would use them. My folks didn’t care what we read as long as we read. My father was a practicing alcoholic but a genius when it came to chemistry and especially polymers and plastics but he considered me to be his stupid child because I never could do basic algebra. Lord knows in his sober moments he tried to teach me but then I had more fun not understanding what a slide ruler was for but enjoyed making the parts move. I think it safe to say that I am my mother’s child, that woman could cut through more red tape for more people than any ten social workers and she spent 45 years at the same agency eventually rising to run the place.

The one thing I have always appreciated about my parents is they never shielded us from anything, nightly news with Walter Cronkite was mandatory. Many nights we never ate together but the Civil Rights, Viet Nam war and political news was a mandatory event. I believe they wanted us to understand not just the present but the effect of wars and what the black community not only in the south but in America has been through, they were good straight ticket democrats and personally I think they would be made crazy by today’s political situation after having lived as teens in the Depression of the 30’s and the war right after it.

After I was discharged from the navy, a few months before my 21st birthday, I looked around at a country still in turmoil with the winding down of Viet Nam (no I am not a combat veteran, I was a deep water sailor on a small ship on the North Atlantic.) and Watergate. The Arab oil embargo effects were still being felt and I looked at going into one of the auto plants for a job but I just couldn’t force myself to do that. Nothing wrong with it, it was a great living for them that could stand the same thing day after day but being at sea ruined that part of me. On the day I turned 21 I stuck my thumb out and 8 or so hours later I was somewhere in central Illinois.

I had no plan but to see what there was in America. So for the next 4 years I just moved about, sometimes I would work in the fields for a few days and other times just walk whichever way I was headed. In the military I had seen most of the East Coast cities so I pretty much stayed away from them and it was not un-common to spend a few weeks just quietly camping in the tree line. I never had any expectation for any particular day but it was at that time in my life I was able to be alone with the spirit of our being. And I found out through pointed questioning of that spirit creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. One has to do some unbiased research into it but they are both in my belief structure true. The cosmos and all in it, included man was created many billions of years ago.

In ‘79 I came back to Detroit got married and divorced and had 2 children in between a very short marriage. They were still babies when my ex took them to a smaller town because she knew she didn’t want them to grow up in Detroit. I don’t blame her to be honest and she married again to a great guy who did a wonderful job raising the kids. But farm country just wasn’t for me, I knew there would be no way I could make a living so I let them go without to much problem and did my best to maintain some relationship with my darling children. I met my current wife in ’83 or so and we have been together ever since. It was a package deal and I inherited another son 3 months older than the one living in Farmville.

In the meantime I went to work for the city of Detroit and spent 20 years in four different departments, by far my favorite was the Art Department hanging art at the Detroit Institute of Art. That is one of the few places I can honestly say I was able to with the curators explanations get a fine education in the different schools of art and styles used. *shrug* 5 years and bad times hit and I had to go back to laboring in a fresh water plant. Eventually I finished up as a general auto mechanic when I blew out my L4-L5 disc and that was that. I was forced into a disability retirement. And two years later was in a roll over crash that broke my neck which stopped the idea of going back to work. That was 12 years ago, so since then I have been on a permanent week end.

So to end this question I was a blue collar working guy, I have never lived anywhere but Detroit permanently, never was a suburban type (not that there’s anything wrong with that) I have 3 kids 1 an engineer, 1 working on becoming an engineer, and my daughter who is an adrenaline junkie is an EMTS. My wife (commonly referred to as The Old Lady) and I have been together the better part of 30 years and even though we live on 25% of what I was making when I had a job I, believe all is pretty good for us personally. We are fortunate to have no debt, don’t mind driving beaters for cars and most of our neighbors actually, we get along with.

RZ: What made you want to write? Is it a desire that’s always been with you? Or was there some particular event or book that ignited the fire? Why poetry as opposed to prose?

MCD: I think that the poetry and the earlier wanderlust will have to be blamed on my grandmother. She was a wonderful woman who lived to 105. As soon as she could she left the farm outside of Ottawa and went to teachers college then moved four thousand miles away from home by herself to teach English in Calgary Alberta. It was still a cow town in 1907 and she stayed for 5 years before moving to Toronto. Once she married in her early 30’s she settled down and was content to be a housewife. She took care of me and my younger brother when I was between 3-6. She didn’t like children’s stories but in the afternoon while dinner was cooking and she had time to sit, she read poetry to me. I can’t claim that I understood it, but she knew how to read it and I loved the sound of her voice as she read. She introduced me to Dickinson, Frost, Guest, Sandburg and her other favorites. Once I was able to read for myself at about age 5 I always included some poetry in my choices among the comic books and other young adult books. Shel Silverstein wasn’t around yet but I was able by then to at least understand short works by the likes of Stephan Crane.

When I first started to put pen to paper at about age 14, spending hours writing a piece, I think it was to piss my father off. He thought I should be out playing football (fat kid, hold that line!) or baseball but like the factories later, that just wasn’t for me. I never followed sports, although I did like seeing Gordie Howe’s picture in the paper when he had dropped the gloves and was smiling with another tooth gone. To be honest I have rudimentary understanding of the rules of hockey but the rest of them…well the Old lady has to explain them to me if I sit and watch a game with her. She is the fan of the family.

Once I started writing though I never stopped, I like the solitude of writing and it is usually poetry that I write. Funny thing was when I returned from boot camp all of my journals had been burned and for once I did the right thing, kept my mouth shut. Just kept on writing but for the next thirty or so years I never kept any of it. I would write and drop it over the side for Poseidon to read and judge or just hit the circular file with it. A couple of times during that period some curious people would pay for my lunch as a trade for the napkin I was writing on. That was an interesting experience, but still when you are living out of a back pack you don’t waste space with pages of paper.

Now I have been keeping most everything I write because Michelle Brooks (Michelle’s spells—the only creative writing professor I ever had) said she would beat me if I threw any more writing away. So now I delete instead of throw away (just kidding Brooks). I don’t have this burning desire that will bust my gut to get published or anything so intense that I will go even more insane if I don’t write about it, but like Brooks taught me “There is poetry in everything.” I am just one of those fortunate souls who are able to see it.

I write prose, I just don’t often put out it out there. I have 6 or 7 completed novels that all need an editor’s hand and a few dozen essays and short stories. I am a poet though and it took me decades before I could say that about myself and become comfortable in those shoes. If one were to Google up “All I wanted was a little weed Mark C Durfee” they would come to Ivan Prokupchucks blog where he published that story. That is an example of my prose, a short memoir I wrote a few years back.

RZ: Writers always get asked about their influences. Consider this that question.

MCD: The easy answer would be who. I could run through a list of poets and writers that range from Yeats and Crane to Dickens and Dostoyevsky. I have favorite contemporary poets and musicians that I listen to and honestly love their work but what influences me I think most is yesterday, and today. Situations and people that come to mind who are for the most part voiceless or lost, crowded out by life’s loud and arrogant people. I have been in that position and I never liked it, then a couple of decades ago I learned to not be afraid to speak so in my own way I am speaking for my younger self as well as others who may stumble upon some of my work and find they can be courageous if they find a way to lose their fears. That one thought drives me, fear kills and I want most people to live, that they may learn to love honestly and fearlessly.

RZ: Mark, much of your poetry has a clear sense of place about it, and that place is Detroit. What is it about Detroit that sets you off?

MCD: Although I have spent my life here I do not love Detroit. I have great respect for her but it just seems that it has become too easy for the rest of the nation to say “bulldoze Detroit” and that pisses me off. I am honest, brutally so in my poetry that is centered on this city. I am not afraid to tell the truth of Detroit today. But Detroit is so ugly it is beautiful in its own way, it redefines beauty while at the same time acts as a portrait of the way America herself could find itself in as short as another decade if we don’t set our minds united to solving the great divide that is happening right now nationally.

Detroit since the early 20th century has always been segregated, not as racially as it is now but ethnically. Everyone who came here from somewhere else for a job moved into neighborhoods that they made their own. The Irish one place, the Poles another, Hispanics another etc. and no one ever integrated anywhere but on the factory floors. But what I find odd is that this city was one of the true drivers of the middle class, that group that earned a living wage and had access to some small luxuries like college for the kids or a boat or summer cottage.

Now that the factories are mostly gone, decaying or torn down the population within the city for the most part still does not yet value education because for generations, an 8th grade education could get you a great job. Those families that did value education when it was affordable have moved on now so what we are left with is a class of people who are semi-literate, and struggling with a 25% unemployment rate, not able to help their kids with homework and stuck in place. I could leave but I keep asking myself where would I go that I could do more than where I am at right now. I tutor first graders in reading, I do open mic’s in the suburbs and the city and I mentor other writers who ask for the help.

I don’t see Detroit as a hopeless place but rather like one of those voiceless people I mentioned earlier and I have a blog and a voice and I try to use both to reach an audience to inform them that “hey we are still here, we are able to work but someone has to come and do something with this 75 square miles of vacant and abandoned land within the city limits.” I see a reason for hope in a hopeless place and I want to stick around long enough to see some real change created by the hands of the people who live here. I don’t know what form that change would take but we are not on any known fault lines, are not prone to hurricanes, flooding or tornadoes and don’t have particularly brutal winters. That seems to me to be a starting point for some companies to come in here and build big projects, nuclear plants, hydrogen plants or anything that needs people who know how to use their hands and heads when putting things together.

RZ: What, or who, inspires you?

MCD: I do not like the word god. It is too generic a word. Who inspires me is that being that squeezed all matter so tightly it exploded into a cosmos for us to be awed by. I am still inspired by stars dressed in a dark blue cloth of sky. After that knowing my own individuality and commonality with others inspires me to want to keep breathing for awhile yet, I don’t think I am ready to have the last page of my personal book written yet. But if so I at least know I have been kind and done all I could do while I was here. In short that point where the mortal touches the infinite is my greatest inspiration.

RZ: Are you working on anything currently? What’s next for you?

MCD: I am not physically setting anything down for publication right now. The Stink trilogy took me about two and a half years to write and edit so I am not quite ready yet to shift gears to another theme. But I am thinking on a book of the political poetry I have been writing off and on because I am one who is always ready to make known my thoughts on religion (mostly a decent place to start but a poor place to end) and politics, which since the Reagan era has run the train of America off the tracks that a greatly diverse nation should be on. I am also thinking of doing an anthology with another much younger poet, I love her work and it is just as honest and raw as my own usually is, but she has a greatly different perspective on life. Either way it would be 6 months or so before anything would be ready. But the beauty of self publication once it is done the rest moves pretty fast.

RZ: What work is available from you right now and where can readers find it? Is there a place online where folks could go to learn more about you and your work?

MCD: I self publish, even though all of the three previous books have a publisher listed to get an ISBN for them, but the only way to get the books you named in your intro is at I do it this way because it keeps the cost down. If I went the conventional publishing route the books would be subject to editing I may not want and the price would be in the $15-$17 range. So far I have been able to sell each 80 page book for $10 US and that includes return postage to anywhere in the world. Generally I am not trying to make a great profit on these books but just to be heard and maybe in being heard help someone find their way out of a briar patch.

No one, including myself has written a Wikipedia page about me yet so the only way to learn more about me is to ask me. I write The Walking Man blog where I float quite a bit of my poetry.

Mark, thanks for visiting Razored Zen.

From the bottom of my being Charles, thank you. It is to me a great honor to appear here and get a chance to really think out again why I am and how I have come to be as I am. I truly appreciate your readers and find them not only to have a wonderful sense of humor but to truly be interested in the craft and art of writing.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Roast of Charlie Sheen

I watched Charlie Sheen get roasted last night and enjoyed it. I seldom pay attention to celebrities, but I often do enjoy these roasts. Besides, this one had William Shatner on it and he is one celebrity I do occasionally pay attention to. Besides Shatner and Sheen himself, there was John Lovitz, who I believe was in the movie--The Wedding Singer. There was Mike Tyson, who I know from boxing. And there was Seth MacFarland, who I understand is the creator of Family Guy. Slash played guitar and I recognized him. I really had no idea who the rest of the people were, although I’ve seen some of them on roasts before.

As was to be expected, the roasters poked fun at Charlie Sheen’s drug use, his fights with ex-wives, and his use and abuse of hookers. They made a lot of jokes about his apparent recent meltdown, which I had only heard vaguely about. I didn’t get any of those jokes, but many of the others were funny. Many of the roasters also made fun of the other roasters, and I often find those jokes the funniest of all during these events. Mike Tyson appeared to be intoxicated and was actually quite funny.

Interestingly to me, the jokes at these events are generally extremely mean-spirited. Sheen, for example, was ‘taunted’ about having lost his daughters because of his bad behavior. (I winced a bit at that.) I generally dislike mean-spirited humor, but for some reason it seems OK on these roasts. I guess it’s because I can actually see the person being skewered on the screen, and they are laughing themselves at what’s just been said about them.

The funniest joke of the night, from my perspective, involved William Shatner. Sheen was doing his spiel at the end and said he’d wanted Shatner to be there because he needed some clean urine. He added, “I had to wring it out of the diaper but it was still good.” (Shatner is 80 years old.) I laughed pretty hard about that one.

So, do you watch these roasts? Do you even know who these people are? And does the mean-spirited nature of the jokes ever bother you?

BY THE WAY, my post about "Fantasy by Definition" is up over at Rogue Blades Entertainment at the moment. I've joined that august group and will be posting relatively regularly there as time goes on. So check it out if you get a chance.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Legacy of Lee

A week ago now, Tropical Storm Lee swept through our area. We "weathered" the storm quite nicely. We had quite a bit of rain but only localized flooding that didn't cause Lana and I any trouble. The wind was largely nothing to worry about and we didn't even lose electrical power during the storm. Afterward, in fact, we thanked Lee for bringing in some much needed cooler weather, which at first allowed Lana and I to get outside a bit more.

Then Lee's children arrived, courtesy of all the standing water he left behind, and I am no longer considering the storm a weak villain in the story of my life. On Friday evening as I arrived home, I stepped out of my car into a swarm of mosquitoes that resembled the swallows returning to Capistrano. If those swallows were blood-sucking predators, that is. I made a break for the house through the cloud and managed to get inside and get the door barred before I was down more than a pint or so of A-.

Lana and I then hunted down and killed the few six legged vampires who had managed to breach our barriers. An hour or so later, we heard the mosquito truck come by spraying its load of mosquito death, and I must admit to feeling a small bit of pride at how my fellow humans were striking back at the evil. Under my breath, I began to chant, just subtly, "Human Race, Human Race."

Alas, while our front yard remains a relatively mosquito barren landscape, our back yard--to borrow a line from the movie Starship Troopers--"crawls." The weather is nice but there is no sitting on the deck. Not if one values the fine red fluid that flows in one's veins.

Unfortunately, I have to venture out each morning into that no man's land to feed the birds. It takes barely a few minutes but the hordes are waiting. I am covered with bites, quite a few of which appear to be bites made upon previous bites. And they itch...really...really ...bad. I'm considering buying myself a Hazmat suit. If I knew where to find one.

Ahh Lee. We thought you were a weak sister. But you've brought me low. I bow before your dread power. I surrender my back yard to your minions. I will call you forever, "Father of Mosquitoes."

Have mercy!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Poor Hearing Approach to Good Stories

I remember reading a piece by Harlan Ellison once about how a story idea and a title came to him. If I remember correctly, he was on a plane and overheard two women talking about their kids. One woman asked the other about her son, Jeffy. Ellison heard the woman answer: “Oh, Jeffy is five. He’s always five.” Now, Ellison was pretty sure the woman actually said “fine,” but that’s not what he heard, and out of that mishearing a story was born. That story was called “Jeffty is Five” and is quite a good one.

A week or so ago I posted a poem here called “Harmland.” That title, too, came from mishearing something. I was listening to a song, not sure by who, when I heard the singer use the word “Harmland.” I was almost immediately sure he said “heartland,” but that’s not what I heard. The title instantly resonated with me and the poem came only a short time later. The emotion of the poem had been inside me for a while but the title helped coalesce it into something real.

Yesterday I was listening to “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” by the Hollies. I like this song very much but never have figured out quite what the lyrics are. I know I could look them up online, but what’s the fun in that. Instead, I enjoy trying to puzzle them out, and I enjoy the weird associations that come to me from mishearing certain phrases. For example, I’m pretty sure there’s “a machine ahold of my right hand” somewhere in that song. And there’s a story in there somewhere that one of these days I’ll write.

While listening to that song yesterday, for the thousandth time, a perfect title for a noir crime story also came to me: “Long Dead Woman in a Black Dress.” I’ve got to write this one, and I’ve got a pretty good idea how it’s going to work.

So, if you’re looking for titles or story ideas, I suggest you mishear a few things. What say you?

Monday, September 12, 2011

For Want of a Zipper

For want of a zipper, writing time was lost.

One day last week I woke up half an hour early. That meant I got to work half an hour early. After dealing with emails from, 1) a student who needed a form signed but couldn’t meet any of my office hours, 2) a student explaining why she hadn’t turned in the essay due Thursday, 3) a student explaining that she’d lost her ID and therefore couldn’t swipe into class on Wednesday but was nevertheless present and could I let the university know, 4) a graduate student from another university who wanted me to find a research file for her because her advisor, who also had the file in her office, wasn’t available at just that moment, 5) a faculty member who really likes to talk on the phone, and 6) some emails that I actually ‘needed’ to deal with, I realized I had almost 35 minutes free before my first class.

I had prepared my class notes the night before so 30 of that 35 minutes suddenly became writing time. I called up a story on my computer that I’ve been working on but made the mistake of needing to go the bathroom first. In the bathroom, my zipper broke. And hell followed with it.

I spent a minute or two trying to fix my zipper in the bathroom, with no luck, so I untucked my shirt and casually sauntered back to my office, whereupon I closed my door and frantically stripped off my pants to work on the zipper. That availed me nothing. Zippers are a technological marvel, but when they break down it becomes a job for an expert. (Much like a computer or a modern automobile.) I lack the appropriate training for any of those jobs.

I put my pants back on and sauntered up to the secretary’s desk, inquiring if she had any safety pins. (A search of my own desk had proven fruitless. I had plenty of paper clips but didn’t think they were my solution to this particular Kobayashi Maru.) Fortunately, our secretary had two safety pins, a King Kong sized one and a hobbit sized one. I thanked her for them and sauntered back to my office, where I closed the door and frantically began trying to use the two pins to close the gap in my pants. They did the trick…partially. But both pins were bright silver and gleamed like the corona of the sun. I considered adding staples at that point but I don’t really like waving weapons around anywhere below my belly button.

Although I don’t have extra pants at my office, I did happen to have an extra shirt that was on the large side. I put it on, leaving it untucked, and attempted to verify for myself whether or not my newly armored and shiny crotch would be visible to my students. (Did I mention that 80 percent of my students are female?) A colleague whose office is next to mine had arrived by now and I considered asking for a double check. However, she is also female, and though we are friends I did not see it turning out well if I asked her to check my crotch area to make sure she couldn’t see the safety pins under my billowy shirt tail.

Fortunately, a few offices away sat a male colleague. Making sure that he was alone, I entered his office and indicated to him that I had a rather huge favor to ask of him. And by huge I just mean large, of course. Or well, medium. I explained my predicament and asked, as delicately as I could, if he might visually scan the affected area to see if I were going to get fired for pulling a Jim Morrison on a bunch of undergraduates. His eyes appeared to flicker lower for the barest of bare fractions of an instant and back up. He said that he didn’t think I had anything to worry about as long as I didn’t “reach up” while writing on the board. I thanked him and fled, wondering if we would ever speak again, and knowingwe’d never discuss…the incident.

Returning to my office, I realized that I had approximately 1 minute of the lovely 30 minute writing time left. I checked email instead. For want of a zipper, writing time was lost. That’s my morning excuse and I’m sticking to it.

As for my classes that morning? I stayed very still behind the lectern the entire time, except for when I turned my back fully to the students in order to reach up and write on the board. As the old timers say, “praise the lord and pass the safety pins.”

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Earning Your Endings at Novel Spaces

I'm over at Novel Spaces for a couple of days with a post about story endings. I hope you'll drop by.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Too Many Stories; Too Little Time

Since finishing Under the Ember Star in July I haven’t done a lot of writing. I took a couple of weeks off, and then school started and I’ve been pretty well swamped. But I’m starting to get the itch again, badly. I’m ready to get started but the question is what to start on. There are so many stories I want to tell, so many characters crowding my head.

In psychology, we have the concept of the “approach-approach” conflict, which is the conflict that occurs when you want two things but can only choose one. Writing is like that for me. It’s why I start so many things but typically end up finishing only a few. Right now I’m working on a story called “Harvest of War” for an anthology. I’ve completed the rough draft and am handling the polishing now. That one will be finished because someone has already asked me for it. But that one is not calling for full-time effort at this point so which other project do I pick up? I have a lot of choices.

Wraith of Talera: Two years ago I started the fourth book in the Talera series. I’m about a third of the way done with it and I have a very good idea what is going to happen through the rest. This one will be complete in and of itself but will also be part of a duology. I want to tell this story. My mind is urging me in that direction. But....

The Razored Land: One year ago I started this post-apocalyptic novel. It will be told in two parts and the first part, roughly the first half, is finished. I really like the idea behind this work and I think the topic is quite timely. Not only do I want to write it but I think it might be a little trendy even. But....

"Down Home": A few weeks back I put up a blog post with some potential first lines to stories. One of those ignited my imagination and I began the piece. It’s going to be a departure from most of the writing I’ve done in the past ten years in that it’ll be more literary and realistic. I think it’s going to be an interesting challenge and I love challenging myself. But....

Where It Wanders: About five years ago I started a horror novel and wrote probably the first one-fifth of it. It’s going to be a more complicated book than "Wraith" or "Razored Land," but I really like the characters, especially the two primary villains, and I am enjoying the twists and turns. I think this one would particularly appeal to those readers who liked Cold in the Light. I recently reread the stuff I have and thought it was very good. But....

In the Time of the Gun: I’ve been reading a lot of westerns in the past few years, returning to one of my first loves in fiction. I put together Killing Trail and it has been well received. I wrote two brand new stories for that collection and man did I enjoy them. I really want to write another western, a full-length one, and I already have a character that I find fascinating. If I could get it done I’d probably put it up on Kindle and Nook to try and follow up on the success of Killing Trail. But.....

The Darwin Book: I’m over three-quarters of the way done with this one and I’m currently doing a lot of background reading that I need to do to complete it. That reading should be done within four to five months and then I could make a final push. But....

There’s “The Morphy Machine,” “Farhaven,” a collection of essays on Robert E. Howard, a compendium of fantasy words, etc, etc.

I guess this is mostly a good problem to have. At the pace I manage, there’s years of solid writing right there. I don’t have to worry about running out of ideas for the next decade or so. On the other hand, having too many ideas can lead to a crisis of decision making, at least for me. As in the classical approach-approach conflict, when I commit to one project I’m putting all the others once more on the back burner. And that back burner is getting crowded. Something will almost certainly get lost in the shuffle, as with “Farhaven,” a kid’s novella I started about ten years ago, and “The Morphy Machine,” an SF chess story I started about 25 years ago.

I don’t suppose I’m asking for ‘which’ project to pick. I’ll eventually make that decision. But I wonder what others do in an approach-approach conflict. How do you decide? What “breaks” the tie for you? In writing, or elsewhere in life?

Monday, September 05, 2011

Razored Zen Interview: Kent Westmoreland

My latest guest on Razored Zen Author Interview is Kent Westmoreland. Kent is the first author I’ve interviewed who lives in my geographical area. He resides in New Orleans now, though originally he hails from a farm. Like me. His was in North Carolina, mine in Arkansas. As Kent says, he eventually “stumbled into New Orleans and never made it out.” We’ve met a number of times. I first got to know Kent when he and I were in a writer’s group together. We met at a local bar called Cooter Brown’s. That’s about all I can tell you. Perhaps that’s enough.

Most recently, I attended a talk and a signing by Kent for his book BARONNE STREET, a detective novel in the grand tradition. It’s available in both trade paperback and Kindle. I read it, enjoyed it, and reviewed it on Amazon here. Without further ado, here’s Kent. (RZ represents Razored Zen and I’m sure you can figure out what KW stands for.)
(Photo Credit: O'Neil De Noux)

RZ: Tell us a little about yourself outside of writing. Hometown. Family. Job. That sort of thing.

KW: I don’t think I have been to Cooter Brown’s since the writers group stopped meeting. We exchanged some good ideas during those elbow bending sessions.
My personal story is not exciting. My parents were generous and loving; I have no sad stories of being tortured and abused. However, I made their lives a living hell.

The stork dropped me in rural North Carolina on a farm with cows and chickens; a situation I never really cottoned to (a nod to my native vernacular). But the location came with my parents and a pretty cool older brother, so there are no complaints.

After high school I moved to Charlotte and spent a few years drink and stupid before eventually attending college to become a software developer.

A few years after college I wound up in New Orleans as a stopping point on my way to south Florida. I never made it to south Florida

My day job is project manager for a company that provides banking software and technology services. My wife, Leslie, is CPA. We live in uptown New Orleans with three cats.

RZ: What made you want to write? Is it a desire that’s always been with you? Or was there some particular event or book that ignited the fire? Is there something about growing up on a farm that makes one want to write?

KW: Before I started to school I would dictate stories to my grandmother. I don’t know if she actually transcribed them or made a grocery list as I rambled about Civil War battles. The stories most likely had no plot, characterization, or point.
In second grade I started writing stories that were what you might expect from a seven year old -super heroic fantasies featuring me.

In junior high and high school, I wrote a number of short stories that were mostly period pieces: westerns, civil war, post-civil war. One story was set at the Woodstock music festival. I did write a an alternative history novella with the same premise, but different storyline, as the movie Red Dawn. It was quite dreadful as I recall.

After high school I put writing on the back burner. I wanted to focus on a financially rewarding career, a health plan and a 401K. My life has always been a left brain/right brain struggle with the left brain usually dominating. A few years ago I knew it was time to start writing again. The result was BARONNE STREET.

RZ: Writers always get asked about their influences. Consider this that question.

KW: In BARONNE STREET my goal was to tweak the traditional detective novel format. I started with the format pioneered by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. To give the novel a more post-modern attitude I studied The Horse Latitudes by Robert Ferrigno. To create an atmosphere of decadence and ennui, I listened to the music of early and mid-period Roxy Music while writing the novel.

Burleigh Drummond, the protagonist, has a self-aware, sardonic voice I borrowed from the narrator of the Kurt Vonnegut pastiche Venus on the Half-Shell which was written by Phillip Jose Farmer. Drummond shares DNA with James West from the TV series The Wild, Wild West. What I always loved about James West is wherever he went people said: “There’s James West, secret agent for the Secret Service”. It was so absurd. But I realized this would happen to Drummond since he operates in small, insular New Orleans, a city with only three degrees of separation instead of six. So I worked that concept into the novel and the stories. Drummond seldom engages anyone who doesn’t know him or know of him.

RZ: Kent, much of your fiction, BARONNE STREET included, is set in the New Orleans area. What is it about this area that attracts you as a writer?

KW: Initially I had planned to base the Burleigh Drummond series in Palm Beach, but Lawrence Sanders had beaten me to that locale with his fine Archie McNally series. In retrospect Palm Beach would have been the wrong choice. Palm Beach is less of a city and more of a winter vacation community for the ultra-wealthy; they only stay for “The Season”. And then there is all that beautiful sunshine, white sand, and crystal-blue ocean. Burleigh Drummond needed to operate in a dark city with darker secrets.

Then I wandered into New Orleans. A city filled with secret societies whose members don masks once a year and toss trinkets to the masses. The bluebloods make backroom deals to restrain new business and influence politicians. The politicians bleed every dime from the city coffers and do nothing for the city. Then the bluebloods and politicians dance together at formal balls while the city decays. New Orleans was the perfect location for Burleigh Drummond to set up shop

RZ: Writing can be hard work. What motivates you to keep going? What inspires you?

KW: Writing is hard work. That left brain/right brain struggle keeps me from producing more. The second Drummond novel is abandoned. I admire writers like you who not only produce a lot of stories, but are prolific in subject matter.

RZ: What are you working on currently? And what’s next for you?

KW: I am working on a spec screenplay which will be marketed to production companies that make straight-to-video and TV movies. I think that avenue is less of a long shot to sell than a novel and more lucrative. That’s the left brain winning again.

RZ: What work is available from you right now, and where can readers find it? Is there a place online where folks could go to learn more about you and your work?

KW: In addition to BARONNE STREET, I currently have two short stories in Kindle format on Ash Wednesday and Price Tag Attached. Both feature Burleigh Drummond.

Ash Wednesday is a re-telling of Cinderella with Drummond in the fairy godmother role. The Kindle edition has two versions of the story. The first version originally appeared in the anthology Erotic New Orleans and reads like a vintage Penthouse Forum letter. The second is safe to use as bedtime story and was published in Thrilling Detective magazine. An Amazon reviewer said the Kindle package is a good example of “how the same story can be written so differently”.

Price Tag Attached is collaboration with O’Neil De Noux. Drummond assists New Orleans homicide detective Jodie Kintyre in solving the murder of a French Quarter antiques dealer. Jodie is a character from O’Neil’s Dino La Stanza series. Since the La Stanza series exists in the 1980’s and Drummond is set in modern times I guess we have to term this work an alternative history mystery. The story was originally published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

My web site is That's here. If anyone wants to contact me directly my email address is

RZ: Kent, thanks for visiting Razored Zen.

KW: Charles, thanks for inviting me. We need to go back to Cooter Brown’s. In addition to your company I miss the dark German beer and the pastrami sandwiches.

Friday, September 02, 2011

A Poem

Charles A. Gramlich


Some will hate you,
because you helped them when they were down
and they can’t stand to have needed help.

Some will hate you,
because they are jealous of your success
even though they haven’t worked for their own,

because you have family and friends
and they’ve driven all of theirs away,

because you own things they don’t
and they won’t bust their ass like you did to get them,

because in your smile there are no knives
and you give to others while they take.

Some will hate you,
because you are Jewish, or Muslim, or Christian,
or none of the above,

because you are black or white, male or female,
gay or straight,

because you carry more weight than they think you should
or are thin enough for them to call you vain.

Some will hate you,
because they are bitter and unhappy,
angry at a world their own faults have turned against them,
because they demand respect but give none themselves,
because their own mouths are full of lies
and they think yours is too.

And when such people hate you,
know that hate is all they have.