April 2nd, 2008

there!, Hello

On Writing: Challenges (OR: Offered? To Whom or What?)

What happens when a writer hears about a magazine that's offering a challenge? Well, if that writer is like me, then he ponders how challenging the "challenge" really is.

If the magazine is looking for a gross out story and advertises said challenge with, say, the picture of a plate heaped with feces, I'll probably pass. Not quite my cup of tea. Sure, I've attended the World Horror Con Gross Out Competition and have written my share of tales involving some gross material, but when I set out to "Go Gross!" the story usually ends up hackneyed. The real difference between gratuitous elements and those which are integral to a story has a lot to do with my mindset prior to putting fingers to keys or pen to notebook. Editing plays a pretty good role in this, too, as I typically sand the rougher elements out. Sure, "gratuitous" is often in the mind of the beholder, but I try to avoid writing things that feel gratuitous to me. At least if I'm publishing them under my own name. That's what pseudonyms are for. Heh.

However, if the challenge is to, say, write a drabble, then I am interested. What the deuce is a drabble, some might be wondering? It's a story that is exactly one hundred words long (for those who don't have a good barometer for what 100 words means, that paragraph I wrote starting "If the magazine is looking..." is about 50 words too long. The hundred word mark is "...pen to notebook."). 100 words: Beginning, middle, end. Talk about economy of language!

Last November I found out about a magazine, Necrotic Tissue, that had just started up and was open to fiction submissions. As they came out the door as a paying market, I decided to check out their guidelines. Typical pay for typical fiction lengths. $5 for stories less than yadda yadda, $10 for those from yadda yadda to 5000 words. Wait, what's this? The biggest pay goes to 100 word long stories?* AND you get a T-shirt? It was a challenge.

Now, this might suggest I'm writing for the money. Well, yeah. Sure, I love writing, but if I didn't actually consider the business end of the work, then I'd be selling myself short. This is not to say I have not published in "Exposure" magazines or, worse, royalty only anthologies. Everyone starts somewhere, but I have no plans to go back to the no pay markets (unless it's a charity antho or something). "Exposure" in a market that is not very exposed is not really worth all that much. But I digress...

So, there I was. Looking at a challenge to write a 100 word story, actually less than 100 words, since the final count included the title(!). I started wondering just what the hell kind of story might I tell? Could I tell a story that short? As soon as that question came about, I was sold on the idea. Of course I could, and I would have to prove it to myself.

Well, I started to brainstorm. At first I considered poetry, not writing a poem, per se, but writing something image heavy. I immediately started to ponder the work of Richard Christian Matheson, whose work on short fiction I found almost always interesting and sometimes ended up in the flash arena (under 1000 words). How did the stories I'd read of his work? What could I recall most about them? Then, my mind turned back to a book I had read some months earlier. A collection from Joe R. Lansdale, which was chock full of short shorts, tidbits, writing experiments and such.

Well, it's no surprise that Lansdale has influenced my work before -- look no further than "Big Night for Daddy's Little Girl," which I've taken to reading aloud in a Lansdale imitation to amuse myself.

From there, I somehow jumped to the notion of doing a siege story (too many John Carpenter movies, I suppose). Could I tell a siege story in 100 words? No way! That'd be crrrrazy! As soon as I thought that, I knew it would have to be a siege story. At least for my first attempt. So, I started scribbling. The first draft came in a flash (ba-dum-dum), and it felt like the right length. Instincts turned out to be absolutely wrong, though. It was about 150 words too long. Then came the pondering. What's essential? What info needs communicating?

No need to bore my readers with the process. Needless to say, out came the sanding paper and whittling knife. Hours later, I had a 99 word story with no title. Shortly after that, I had a 99 word story with a 1 word title (my byline did not count toward the word count). Then came the rereading phase, the final pass, and ultimately the submission. The response email said I could expect a decision in six weeks; the actual acceptance came five days after I'd submitted.

Happy dance! While this was ultimately a minor payday in terms of cash value (but the T-shirt is cool; solid black with the magazine/website across the front, a back that says "Dark Is Not Enough...", and a little message on the sleeve tagging me as "Published"; this was the shirt I wore on the last day of Lunacon), the real joy was found in the fact that I challenged myself, and while the story ended up veeeeery differently than I thought it would, I did what I set out to do.

After the whittling and paring and cursing and word search, I have to say it was a fun experience... I wonder, could I do it again? Uh-oh... I might have to try, now.

All of this is preamble to say:
"Offered," my 99 word story with a one word title is now available in the recently released Second Issue of Necrotic Tissue. (You might need to register for the site first). Why not check it out!

* The pay rates have since changed to a flat $25 per story, 100 words to 5000 words. Not a bad token market and enough to make a writer eligible to join a professional writer's association like the HWA as an affiliate member. On a first sale! For a drabble! Not bad! And they're still offering T-shirts in addition to the token payment.
there!, Hello

Blood was everywhere.

29) Queen of Blood by Bryan Smith. (2008, Leisure Books, 321 pages).

Bryan Smith's fourth work follows several plotlines, all revolving around the survivors of his first novel (2004’s House of Blood, a fun, splatterific b-movie for the mind), including Dream Weaver (a former mostly good gal who is turning a new, dark page as she discovers the depths of some nifty black magic mojo in her DNA; she is also haunted by the not-ghost of Alicia, a friend who died in the previous volume), Chad Robbins (the hubby Dream abandoned, now dating a sexpot named Allyson), and Ms. Wickman (servant of The Master of the original House of Blood, she is seeking to recreate his kingdom of suffering). Others bop in and out, of course. And there are plenty of victims to the bloodthirsty Wickman and her many fold minions. Unfortunately, a lot of the characters fall victim to the “absolute power” conundrum, going waaaaay overboard into the realms of sadism, torture and messy murder…

I suppose this has to do with the mythology of the work. At its heart wait the Death Gods, otherworldly beings who require sacrifices of human suffering and innocent blood. Well, the House of Blood (reconstituted here, as the previous incarnation received a rather impressive destruction in the eponymous book, if memory serves me correctly) acts as something of a sacrificial altar to these beings. Magic makes the place into a Baba Yaga’s hut of sorts (much larger inside than out), and all who pass its boundaries pay homage either as the worshipful or as victims (or sometimes victimized worshipful). Check your civilization at the porch, through these doors lie barbarism and savagery.

At its best, it’s all very Howardian. In many ways, this grim story is the modern day follow through of many of the themes and motifs found in the Hyboria or Atlantis that Conan and Kull wandered, complete with a plethora of blood drenched femme fatales offering oblations to blasphemous, cruel gods…

Now, I am a big fan of Howard’s works (sword and sorcery, weird fiction, action stories, boxing, even his rather lackluster hard boiled mystery stuff), and one of the things I adore about them is the author's palate of brilliant colors. The blacks are impenetrable but countermanded by brilliant blues and seeping scarlets and… There are wide ranging vistas of color on display, in even his less than best stuff.

Here, the palate is more limited. Oh, the reds are bright enough (and plentiful, glory knows). The blacks are deep. And yet, there is little else on this canvas...

Gory violence set to a punk rock tempo can be fun, but without a realized world to play it against (and here we need two worlds, the Real World outside and the Weird World inside the Baba Yaga hut/House of Blood Redux), the work seems, well, a little cartoonish. Sure, it’s of the Ralph Bakshi, adult swim on crack variety of animation (the sex is hardcore, and the violence is worse, and sometimes these occur simultaneously), but that’s not enough to sustain a novel length work in my something far less than humble opinion.

However, even a lackluster plot can be fixed with either a) characters you love to love and love to hate, or b) so much style that an audience member cannot help but be overwhelmed by the technique.

Of course this model is not actually a fiction based one, but a film based one. However, it fits this novel, which has a cinematic approach.

While there are certainly plenty of loathsome characters, there aren’t many that I found myself caring about. Then, what about style? Well, if it were a film, the visual technique might be stylish, but the language is the pared down, wham-bam-thank-you-man invisible prose. It’s Richard Laymon quality prose, for sure, but that does little to cover over the tedium. If you see one eyeball skewered on a stiletto heel in a sexualized act of torture, you’ve seen ‘em all…

I wanted to have fun with this one... To crib Mary’s finale, from Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, wherein she reflects upon her marriage: “I […] was so happy for a time.”

Ah well.

Up next:
Finally! Finally, I’m allowing myself to read Ramsey Campbell’s Grin of the Dark! It’s only been stuck on the shelf for something akin to a year! Too many exclamation points? BAH!

As I began reading it last night, a loud and flashy thunderstorm struck Worcester... I kid you not. What more perfect weather could one ask for a dalliance in Ramsey Campbell’s disturbing world?