The horror, the horror

One of the panels I attended at Saints and Sinners was titled “The Devil You Don’t Know: Otherworldly Forces in Fiction.” The description from the program: The force of evil in a work of fiction often appears in an otherworldly guise to distill the author’s intent with his or her terrifying character or object. However, evil obviously exists in more realistic forms in the world around us every day. This panel will focus on how different writers represent ideas of evil or horror and how the supernatural may be used and blended with realistic events in order to create a force which speaks to the power of evil in the world.

Though I’ve considered writing romantic suspense and perhaps something paranormal, I don’t read horror and genuinely don’t plan to write horror. It would be easy to say I attended this panel to support ‘Nathan, who’s not only a friend but a contributor to both Fool For Love and Foolish Hearts. But I’ve found that no matter what genre authors write in, they all have insights and guidance that can benefit any writer. And this was a panel that would reintroduce me to writers whose work I already know, ‘Nathan Burgoine and Christopher Rice, as well as new-to-me authors Christian Baines and Marie Castle. Plus it was moderated by Jean Redmann, who always has interesting observations.

Christopher Rice, Marie Castle, ‘Nathan Burgoine, Christian Baines, Jean Redmann

For people who write about evil, these were some relaxed and humorous panelists with lots of wisdom to offer, including how perhaps growing up feeling like “the other” because of their sexual orientation led them to explore the otherness of monsters or those with magical powers in their writing. ‘Nathan’s current novel Light, a Lambda Literary Award finalist, has as a protagonist a gay superhero with psychokinetic and telepathic powers. Chris Rice’s current title, The Heavens Rise, is a supernatural thriller about the return of an ancient parasite that threatens the future of humankind. Christian Baines’s The Beast Without is the story of a Sydney vampire who has to form an uneasy alliance with other supernatural beings to deal with a rogue werewolf. Marie Castle’s Hell’s Belle, the first in her Darkmirror series and also a Lambda Literary Award finalist, is the story of a witch whose family guards the gates that keep demons and their ilk from leaving the Otherworld and coming into our world.

One of the passages that Marie–a Mississippian–read from her book rings true for anyone who knows Southern storytellers:

In the South, a story never starts where it should. Ask a man why he killed his neighbor, and he might start by saying, “Well, I had Cream of Wheat for breakfast then put on my favorite flannel shirt…” An hour later, he’ll get to the point. This is why you never ask a Southern man why he doesn’t love you. The answer usually starts when he was five and continues on through every previous love.

Christian, who has a delicious accent–if his vampire Reylan sounds like that, it’s easy to hear how he charms his prey–read these first lines from his novel:

On any given night, in any city in the world, somebody will die before sunrise and most of them will die alone.

I found the opening intriguing, and I’ve since read the entire book, and oh, how I loved the below passage from a scene when Reylan–who, by the way, prefers to be called a Blood Shade and abhors the word “vampire”–must go to a club that he can’t stand, full of emo and goth kids costuming themselves like those monsters they think are only fantasy. Because I know how so many of you mock my enjoyment of a certain shiny vampire, this is for you:

A menagerie of every horror cliche you could imagine met my eyes as I scanned the room. Though in fairness, what the costumes lacked in originality, they typically made up for in craftsmanship. No common Halloween trash. These people knew their genre and lavished it with sincere affection… There were a number of imitation Blood Shades, some of whom had even done well enough to leave the Stoker and Rice imagery behind. I allowed myself a satisfied smirk until I saw…Ugh. There had to be one. No more than a teenager. His skin, sparkling as it caught the club’s pulsing lights.


(A comment Greg Herren made on a different panel made me caution him that I had a little vampire traveling with me all the time who hears all. Greg reminded me that he hadn’t said anything negative about my vampire, and then posed with Little Edward to show there were no hard feelings.)

One of the things Christopher Rice mentioned is how these stories, much like the fairy tales of old, are cautionary tales we create to give us an illusion of staying safe and being in control of our lives. ‘Nathan touched on that, too, in that his characters can fight back and use their voices in defiance of the silence and oppression people may experience in real life. There are many reasons why we turn to fantasy, science fiction, horror, and paranormal books–and sometimes the romances contained therein.

Lots to think about…just as I’d expected, and I don’t need to write horror to apply some of their wisdom to the things I do write. I had taken the first of Kimberly Frost’s Southern Witch series with me to New Orleans to reread. I finished it there and began the second one. After I’d finished rereading the first three, I downloaded the novella that comes between Books 3 and 4, “Magical Misfire,” then I was finally ready to read Slightly Spellbound. Now I have to wait a year for the next one! If you click on the link to Kimberly’s blog, she’s got a giveaway going right now, and you can read the details there.

Happy reading! Or–chills and thrills, if you prefer those.

My (anti) hero

Through the years, my brother has recommended many good books to me. Some of them were tough reads, and what I’ve learned about highly recommended tough reads if I give up on them is that I should revisit them sometime later. A lot of books that I adored as a young adult didn’t have the same luster when I reread them after getting older, so I assumed, correctly, that the opposite could be true. Some books just have to come along at the right time in your life, which is why I continue to reread a lot of the classics that bored me (especially as a teenager). As an adult, I’ve understood how brilliantly they were written and could appreciate them on a level that was beyond me as a youngster.

However, one book David recommended hooked me from the first page, and every time I reread it, I relish it just as much. I can pick it up any time, open to any page, and I’ll start laughing at my favorite anti-hero and one of the most colorful casts of characters ever assembled. It is, as you might surmise from the photo, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It never stops delighting me.

When the book opens, narrator Ignatius J. Reilly is about to get into a contretemps in front of New Orleans’ D.H. Holmes Department Store.

The store closed in 1989, and later the building became the Chateau Sonesta Hotel, now the Hyatt French Quarter. The hotel entrance is on Iberville Street, but if you walk down the back side, on Canal Street, you’ll see this wonderful statue.

It’s based on a portrayal by actor John McConnell of Ignatius in the book’s opening scene, waiting for his mother under the D.H. Holmes clock and surveying the passing pedestrians with disdain. The statue makes me smile whenever I see it, much like the Lucky Dogs carts I pass–they being the basis for “Paradise Hot Dogs,” one of Ignatius’s several employers during the course of the novel.

I know for many people, New Orleans is about partying, eating, and hearing great music. But I love it most for its literary gems, among whom John Kennedy Toole and his novel are the brightest.

ETA: By the way, they usually put the statue in storage during Mardi Gras, so that’s no time to see it.

The look of the town

At a panel at Saints and Sinners which I intend to post about later, the moderator had the writers read first lines from one of their works. On the Colorado trip, as we rode through small towns of the Texas Panhandle, I kept telling Tim I was looking for the last picture show. Later, when David Puterbaugh saw some of my photos from the trip, he, too, brought up the movie The Last Picture Show, which is a favorite of mine, along with Larry McMurtry’s novel. I also like the sequels to both the book (Texasville and Duane’s Depressed) and the movie (Texasville).

I’ve always been an avid McMurtry reader and once considered writing my Masters thesis on his works. Regarding this particular novel, I appreciate how McMurtry’s opening immediately puts me in the setting and inside Sonny’s head, and how the novel remains with me, so that I’m still looking for that old theater and Sonny, Duane, and Jacy in every small town.

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

Larry McMurtry, The Last Picture Show

Your First Readers

Creative self-expression: Though conventional wisdom has it that writing is a solitary act, I tend to disagree. First, a writer’s life is full of interactions and observations that inspire the work and feed the muse. Second, once a writer engages any reader during the writing process, collaboration begins. And if the writer pursues being published, collaboration extends to editors, publicists, and booksellers.

When Timothy and I developed our Saints and Sinners panel “Your First Readers: How Editors Become a Positive Part of Your Short Story Process,” we were fortunate to be able to include contributors to Foolish Hearts and Best Gay Romance 2014 who were attending the festival.

L to R, sitting: Greg Herren, ‘Nathan Burgoine,, N.S. Beranek,, Rob Byrnes
standing: Timothy J. Lambert, David Puterbaugh, Jameson Currier, Becky Cochrane

We were also happy that two of the panelists, Jameson Currier and Greg Herren, could add their perspectives on both sides of the editor/writer relationship. Although we’d allowed time for the writers to read from their works, that didn’t happen, but they were able to offer specific examples from their stories of how they work with editors.

Here are a few bullet points from our discussion that might be of interest to writers hoping to be published.

  • Read. Follow the guidelines in a Call for Submissions. When an editor is inundated with dozens, up to hundreds, of stories, from which s/he can choose only ten to fifteen for an anthology, your failure to follow submission guidelines makes it easy to reject your unread short story. If you don’t like the guidelines in a CFS–for example, you want to submit your story by mail, but the editor requests electronic submissions only–rather than get into a prolonged argument with the editor about why s/he’s wrong, perhaps a writer should reconsider whether a publication is the right place for her or his stories.

    Note the deadline. Note the correct address for sending your story. Note the word count. Note the editor’s name. Heeding whatever information is in the CFS and following through on it gives your story a much better chance of being read.

    Also note the theme. Mystery? Romance? Erotica? Gay? Lesbian? Urban fantasy? Young adult? Paranormal? Christian? Trust me, no matter how good your story is, if it doesn’t fall within the theme the editor’s looking for, it can’t be accepted because it wouldn’t work with the other stories in a collection. Don’t waste an editor’s time by sending your story to everyone who issues a call for submissions without regard for the theme of a collection.

  • Research. When Timothy and I get a story that we’re inclined to accept, we do an Internet search on the writer. Does he or she have a blog? Stories in other anthologies? Has the writer trashed other writers or editors he or she has worked with? Does the writer present a professional online presence or is he or she always convinced there is a cabal of publishers or readers who are actively conspiring to keep his or her greatness from the public? (Does that sound ridiculous? It happens!) Or when we’ve specifically stated that we want unpublished stories, and that we consider online availability of a story to mean published, and we then find the story archived on someone’s blog or LiveJournal or writer’s group, that’s an automatic rejection from us.

    Likewise, as a writer, you should do some research. Does the editor issuing the call have a good online record of promoting writers s/he’s worked with in the past? Does that editor seem to have the respect of others in the writing profession? Is the editor one of those people who believes there is a cabal of publishers and readers conspiring to keep his or her greatness from the public? (Still ridiculous; still happens.) What types of stories has the editor accepted in similar anthologies? You should write the stories you want to write, but you’ll have a better chance of getting them accepted by an editor who’s shown enthusiasm for stories like yours.

  • Revise. Finally, before a writer submits a story with hope of publication, why, why won’t s/he find someone to do even the most rudimentary proofing job on it? If you’re poor, barter with someone! Babysit an English graduate student’s kid if s/he’ll agree to proofread your story. Cook someone a couple of meals in exchange for line edits. Or if you have money, negotiate fair payment for the level of editing your work requires.

    Although Jameson, Timothy, and I all admitted that there are writers we’re willing to take more time to edit because they’re just that good, those writers are usually ones with whom we already have some knowledge or an existing professional relationship, and we know that their stories are so good that it’s worth our time to deal with some of their writing flaws. If you’re new or unknown, especially if you’re unpublished, do everything you can to make sure your story is perfect before you submit it. It definitely increases your chances of getting your story read, and it’ll never be accepted if it’s not read.

    Everyone on the panel had experience with a story or novel that was improved by editing. And this is why I think that long before your story reaches the public, it has gone through the collaborative process of beta readers, crit groups, friends willing to read and comment, and professional editors. Speaking as one editor, I can assure you that there is endless satisfaction in getting a good story, being able to make it a better story in even the smallest way, seeing it in print, and hearing a writer read it aloud as so many of our contributors are doing in their local bookstores, at conferences, and in classrooms.

Photographic proof that Candice Huber is as funny as she is smart.

Book reviewer Candice Huber was one of the people who attended our panel, and it was great to hear her insights on e-publishing. This is a field with which I have very little experience, other than as a reader. I have downloaded books, both free and that I paid for, that I won’t read beyond the first few pages because they are so full of flaws and bad writing. Chances are I’ll never give that writer another shot; there are too many good books I can read instead.

However, I can see value in putting your work online or making it available to download. When you want to share writing and get feedback, begin building a community of readers who will one day be willing to pay for your published work, or if you are a published writer who wants to maintain reader interest using short stories or novellas in the time between your published books, there are many ways to use the Internet. I reiterate what I always say about an online presence: You will be judged for how well you write, whether it’s in a blog, a contributing essay to a web site, or examples of your fiction. Be mindful of that, and be a professional, because the more readers your work finds, the more feedback and criticism you’ll get. Learn what you can from it, and strive to put your best work out there.

If you have any questions related to these topics, please ask in comments. And if you were at the panel and remember things I forgot, please add those in comments, too!

ETA: It took me about two hours to write this post. I just counted my edits to it: 42 43.