Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Fond Farewell to 2015

Normally, at the end of each year I like to get my house and office in order to ring in the new -- files filed, everything printed up that needs printing, fresh lists made of the ever-expanding roster of fiction projects I've completed and the shrinking list of those yet to achieve their first drafts. As 2015 waned, I did all these things, only to fall more than three weeks behind on updating this blog with the first of 2016's posts.

Without adieu, I hope to fix that one shortcoming. Know that the weeks between Now and Before have been busy ones, devoted to writing. In fact, the first two weeks of 2016 saw me completing the two of my oldest as-yet unwritten ideas (unwritten no more!), which hail from the long ago. 1984, in fact!

Back to 2015. The year kicked off with promise, despite a winter so brutal and long that I wondered if it would ever end. We suffered frozen pipes, both in our basement and elsewhere in town, ice dam damage to the roof, and what seemed an endless supply of snow and icicles, which transformed the sun porch of our home into a jagged dragon's mouth filled with transparent teeth. In 2015, I lost three relatives, including my beloved and brilliant Grandmother Rachel, who once wrote for Highlights For Children. Grammy Rachel was a great friend, and one of the two best grandmothers in the history of the universe (I'm looking at you, Grammy Lovey!).

In April, a week of sunny spring weather had me and the cats out on the sun porch writing, where I finished a first draft of my novel Kingdoms Be Damned in seven days. The sun porch throughout the summer was like my own private, comfortable, and efficient Command Center -- out there in my al fresco-style office, with its stunning views of the woods and mountains, I penned the longhand draft of a novella, Sweat Punk: A Love Story that kept me walking around in a daze for two months while I worked on numerous other projects. I was so wrapped up in the love story between two characters separated by walls both physical and cerebral that when the last page was put down, I mourned. On my birthday, I started my Space:1999 fan fiction novel, Metamorphosis, and found myself writing back and forth between both projects, and inspired to a height I haven't known before. I completed Metamorphosis in early October and shared the final chapter at one memorable meeting of my beloved Tuesday night writers' group, where I forgot I was German and blubbered nonstop throughout the reading. For the first time in my life -- my fiftieth on Planet Earth -- a new year began without a single Space:1999 story on the unwritten story idea list.

My collection of three novellas, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, was launched at Anthocon, an annual gem of the conference circuit held in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. During that fantastic weekend, it was my honor to see three other anthologies debut containing my stories, including Anthology: Year Three - Distant, Dying Ember, which features my long epic SF tale, "The Sun Struck". On Christmas Eve, I learned that 2015's conference would be the last, and wish to extend my profound thanks to Anthocon's organizers. I attended every one. It was a pleasure, truly.

(Reading from ROBOTS at Anthocon, photo courtesy of Tony Tremblay)
I kept some pretty spectacular company in 2015. Within the covers of Firbolg Publishing's spectacular anthology, Enter at Your Own Risk: Dreamscapes Into Darkness, my short story "One More" shared space with reprints by none other than the D.H. Lawrence, Mary Shelley, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Earlier in the spring, editor Dave Goudsward sought me out with a personal invitation to write a story for his charity anthology to benefit the John Greenleaf Whittier farm and museum -- my gothic ghost tale "The Coldest Room in the House" was selected to be the anchor story in Snowbound With Zombies and is nuzzled up against a reprint by Mister Whittier himself. And in May, H. David Blalock solicited an original short story from me -- "Breakwater" -- to appear alongside a reprint of "Beyond the Wall of Sleep" by the master himself, H.P. Lovecraft, in his anthology devoted to the lesser written of human villains in Lovecraftiana, The Idolaters of Cthulhu.

I traveled to an event at the Whittier Farm to read and autograph Snowbound, and spent three luxurious days at The Coppertoppe Inn for a Halloween writing retreat with my writers' group. Joining us at the retreat were my good friends Laura Bear from New York State, and Tina McCollum, my best friend from my teen years -- Tina and I used to hang out and write together weekdays following our release from the humorless prison of Salem High School, and did so again for a full week between my home and the top-shelf accommodations at Coppertoppe.

(With the talented and lovely Judi Ann Calhoun at the
Whittier reading event from SNOWBOUND)
As the year's final days ran out, I tallied up my totals from 2015, as I always do: two completed novels, four novellas, a feature film screenplay, and fifty-six short stories adding up to nearly 380,000 fresh words over the course of my fiftieth year. I published one book, saw my fiction appear or get accepted in numerous anthologies, and, above all, lived my life here in the mountains of my home state being happy while harming none.

2016 will hopefully continue the trend, and seems to be headed in the right -- and write -- direction as of this early juncture. In addition to those two ancient stories finally having their THE ENDs (I was both shocked and pleased to witness their characters coming alive from the dead and really running with the fresh pulses of ink, across pages that flew off notepads!), I have booked three writing retreats, a return visit to my beloved Wednesday night writers' group in the southern part of the state, and a trip into Boston, where I'll be reading from my short mystery, "Exhuming Secrets on a Hot August Day", which is set to appear in the anthology Murder Ink. And, after thirteen years together, my wonderful partner and I are going to tie the knot officially, which will make 2016 one for the history books.  Carpe diem!


Thursday, December 24, 2015

2015 Writers' Group Christmas Party

On Saturday, December 12 our little family hosted fifteen of our favorite friends and writers for our annual Christmas Party -- our third since moving north to Xanadu. A brisk, gray morning unfolded the day of the party, though it was considerably less frigid than in previous years. Normally by December, the Russian Winter of New Hampshire's North Country is already here to stay. In 2015, the Polar Vortex seems to be taking its time. There wasn't a single flake of snow to be found anywhere except on the horizon, where the ominous summit of Mount Washington rises.

The house sparkled and was ready by 11 a.m. to receive the first guests. I made the decision not to put up a Christmas tree in 2015. Last year's tree and 2013's were stunners, and I admit I loved decorating with family heirloom ornaments. This year with time and energy focused on so many writing projects, we instead trotted out the funky Goth snowman given to us last year by our awesome neighbor Anne (his hat was filled with treats) as the table centerpiece, and created an 'invisible tree' in the living room to put gifts on and around for the Yankee swap portion of the fun. All morning long, a massive boneless pork roast slow-cooked in the oven. I had whipped potatoes to accompany the roast, jumbo shrimp and cocktail sauce chilling in the fridge, my awesome fruit punch in the big crystal drinks dispenser, and had ordered another wonderful cake from Cote's Cakes and Cupcake Bar, our go-to dessert destination for all writers' group parties and events.

In addition, an incredible buffet materialized, spreading around the kitchen, as is always the way at one of our writers' group parties. We enjoyed: spinach, red pepper, and mozzarella calzone, homemade rolls, a hunter's pie (ala shepherd's, only made with ground venison -- which I normally avoid; this was divine!), Portuguese bread, fresh fruit salad, layered salsa dip with chips, vegan mac & cheese, apple bread pudding, brownies, a gourmet cookie platter, and an assortment of homemade breads -- blueberry, cherry, and fig among them, served on a gorgeous glass platter that we were given following the party. Everything tasted magnificent!

The Yankee Swap kicked off at 1, right as the last of our fellow partygoers arrived. For the first time ever, I drew a number high in the rotation, and wound up snagging a gift basket filled with candy, cocoa, a new coffee mug, pens, paper, and other neat contents. Seeing the paper was what won me over on resisting the temptation to swap -- I've written so much this year that my supply of notepads and notebooks has dwindled to a not-quite-but-getting-close point of anemia. During the reading portion that followed, I shared the opening half of my Viking-themed story, "The Hungriest Month", and got to enjoy some fantastic offerings from my fellow creatives -- what more than one attendee agreed was the best reading at one of our parties ever. By 6:30, the last of our guests departed, and our 2015 party schedule came to its end. Next up: May 2016 -- theme as yet to be determined, followed by September 18, 2016, whose theme will be "Marriage" to celebrate Bruce's and my nuptials, which will occur before the start of the party.  Huzzah!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Meet the Talented and Luminous Clark Chamberlain

I'm convinced that books are filled with powerful magic. Some terrify. Others inspire with romance, introspection, courage. The most magical have the ability to transport us back through time from adulthood to the days when we were children and the world was a vast, wondrous place fraught with mystery, danger, and adventure. One such book is Clark Chamberlain's newest page-turner, Hank Hudson, the story of a young boy growing up in Depression-era America who accidentally gets left behind when his family moves cross country to California. On his long journey to reunite with them, Hank and his loyal companion Dog encounter oddities, get involved in a treasure hunt, and face off against a dark power eager to possess the boy.

I first met the man behind the magic of Hank Hudson after my short story submission to his publishing company's dystopian anthology, A Bleak New World, was accepted. Since becoming one of Raven International Publishing's authors, it has been my pleasure to get to know Clark and his work. Clark wears many hats ("Writer, Illustrator, Publisher, Father, and part-time Good Guy," according to his upbeat daily podcast, a must-listen to for any writer seeking inspiration) -- he helms the excellent The Book Editor Show with fellow scribe Peter Turley, and teaches a course with perhaps the best title in the history of writing seminars: Punch Them in the Gut: Writing Fiction With Emotional Impact. Meet one of my favorite writers and friends, Clark Chamberlain.

I’m always fascinated over where a writer’s ideas originate. What sparked Hank Hudson?
Hank Hudson really came from three things. First, my childhood was anything but normal. Often times I’d find myself living with relatives while my parents were between houses. And of course when you’re a kid being exposed to different and even odd families it shapes you. So I had always thought of a story about a boy living like a gypsy, traveling from town to town always getting into new adventures. Second, I have a brother-in-law, Cameron (the book is dedicated to him), and in all the home movies of him as a kid he’s often in the background, sometimes people telling him to get out of the way so they can record the cute kids. I thought wouldn’t that be interesting that if middle children weren’t just forgotten about because of the number of kids but if a middle child actually turned invisible on accident.Third, I like that spark of excitement that comes from the unknown. That feeling there really is this secret history and that the life we find so normal is just a shell concealing the real world in the background.

(Clark Chamberlain putting down the words)
You’re working on a sequel, correct? Please share with us the broader Hank Hudson mythos.
As Hank sets off to catch up with his parents in the first book, he has no idea he’s part of a bigger world. A secret world. So in the second book we get to explore that deeper and he gets to learn what this world is really about. We have the ley line energy that grants certain powers and Hank can absorb those powers for limited amount of time. He needs to learn how to use them if he has any chance of standing up to the dark monster, the Apep, which wants to use Hank as a vessel so it can have a physical body again. In Hank Hudson and the Anubis, we get more secret history. Why did Roosevelt create the New Deal? In order to hide away the fact that the US is trying to control this energy and the Apeps that were released in the Great War. It really is so much fun to build a world like this. And the farther along the path Hank walks the more questions come along. Like how can he talk with dogs. Why his friend Stin doesn’t seem to age, sweat, and always can produce things from his pockets. At the center of this story it’s about friendship, family and the desire we all have to be accepted and loved.

Talk about your previous writing work -- Another Day Another Name, for instance.
Another Day Another Name was an exercise in understanding more about myself. I wrote it while in Iraq, serving with the US army. It was my go to place to unwind and put down the questions I had, that I really didn’t feel I could talk about with others. It was also a fun place to play what-if. When I first arrived at the US base in Baghdad, I thought there would only be US soldiers. There weren’t. In fact we were outnumbered by contracted security five to one. So that question came to my mind what if the government privatized security in the US? It made a great backdrop for greed and corruption to tell the story of four very different people. Each one of them, Henry, Mabel, Mateo and Steven are neither right nor wrong. The world they live in and what they do is very grey, like the real world. I liked that. The sequel to that, Another Day Another Deception, has been put on hold while I was writing the Hank Hudson books, but I promise that I’ll get back to it soon! And if you thought the first book was intense, you ain’t seen yet. I also enjoy writing comics and telling stories visually. I like playing in the world of Smugglers Inc, my sci-fi comic, and in my son Jonah’s Monster Prison (which we hope to have a few issues out in the first quarter of 2016). I love storytelling. The power it has to shape lives and the way it can connect us together. I’ve seen some bad things in the world and a lot of it comes from seeing “others.” We see the differences and make choices out of fear. Good story can show us the other side. It can help us to understand that we are the same.

(Clark helming the bridge at Raven International)
You knew you were a writer when…
A year after coming back from Iraq. I understood that this was my calling, the place I fit into the world. It let me use my best talents to the fullest of my ability. When I felt that connection to writing and storytelling things started to click in my life.

What's up next for Raven International Publishing?
There are four big projects in the works, Peter and I are building an editing course. Moving forward on a marketing program for authors. And I'll be announcing an open submission for a middle grade book. We've got a superhero anthology due out next year. I need to have better infrastructure before moving into another anthology. I'll be bringing on a couple of interns as well and hope to find someone to move into a full time position.  

Finally, Clark's son Jonah has a chance to go on the American Heritage Tour. To help raise funds, for a $15.00 donation, Clark will send you a copy of Hank Hudson. The link is posted below: https://www.youcaring.com/jonah-clark-454829/update/385334


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

BEHOLD! BLURRING THE LINE

Winter of 2012-13. We still lived in our old apartment (and were awaiting a closing date on this house). For a few frigid weeks, my little sister, who worked the third shift, found herself without a car and in need of a lift to her job. And so, during that time, we drove her to the outer limits of our then-town, to a factory located at the distant top of a winding drive. At that hour, nobody was on the road. Still, the traffic light standing guard at the base of the hill seemed to taunt us, staying red no matter what side we approached from. While waiting for it to change, my imagination translated the red light into a giant, unblinking Cyclops eye. The kernel of a short story idea germinated on one of those late nights. It was cemented on another when, after turning up the drive, we very nearly collided with the biggest buck I've ever seen, who casually tromped across the road after Bruce slammed on the brakes. The buck regarded us with contempt, I swear, before continuing on his way into the dense pine woods. A snow storm thickened around us. The traffic light watched. The story idea was fully formed by the time we returned home, mercifully in one piece.

The following day, I began to pen "1-2-3 Red Light", a story about a notorious traffic light in a remote part of town with a tragic history -- and a thirst for blood. The story's longhand draft dashed itself off fairly quickly, only to soon go into a cardboard box with the rest of my files for our big move north to Xanadu. When I read the guidelines for Blurring the Line, a forthcoming anthology by the fine folks at Cohesion Press, I pulled the longhand draft from my file cabinet for editing on the computer. Blurring the Line would feature a unique take on the horror genre by offering up stories that straddled the boundaries of the fantastic, making the reader question fiction from fact. The whole 'ghost in the machine' approach seemed to make "1-2-3 Red Light" a decent fit for the call. It was. Soon after submitting, Editor Marty Young wrote back to say he dug the story. Today, it appears in the new release alongside a stellar list of authors, many of whom shared the back stories behind their stories in Blurring the Line.

Alan Baxter on "How Father Bryant Saw the Light": "For a long time I've been wanting to write a story that was in some way paying homage to that great horror novel, The Exorcist. But I also wanted to interrupt, to subvert, the strong Judeo-Christian framework of that book, and so much other western horror. I love the cosmic horror of people like Ligotti and Lovecraft, and the non-western horror from Asia and elsewhere, so I tried to meld all those styles a little. 'How Father Bryant Saw The Light' is the product of that desire. Hopefully I at least partly achieved what I set out to do."

Annie Neugebauer on "Honey": "In the nonfiction book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Mary Roach mentions human mummy confection, a purportedly true practice in ancient Arabia. Elderly people sacrificed themselves by consuming only honey until death so their bodies could be turned into a medicinal concoction.The claim was bizarre enough to catch my fancy, and off I ran. I ended up with a short, strange, epistolary story in a voice reminiscent of Poe and one of the more outrageous concepts I’ve ever played with. So in short: just another Thursday. I took it to my critique group without giving it another thought. Their response was not what I expected. People made noises during silent reading, and when the timer went off there was an outburst. Loud, excited voices. Arguments, jokes, ideas, praise. It was crazy. Honestly, I was embarrassed by their extreme responses. I decided I would only ever publish this story if it got accepted by a bomb-proof market (i.e., You haven’t jumped ship validation). Well, Cohesion picked it up for Blurring the Line. I’m so excited to be a part of this bomb-proof anthology, even if that does mean my crazy-ass story is out. I hope you’ll read it."

Lia Swope Mitchell on "Empty Cars": "My dad and his wife spend a good bit of time in New York, and they’ve told me about this thing that apparently everyone learns if they ride the subway a lot: if it’s rush hour and every car on the train is packed except for one… don’t get on the empty car. There’s a reason it’s empty. And the reason is probably someone who’s having one of the worse days of their life. ‘We can pray for him,’ one woman said about an especially pungent man who was peeling the skin off his feet, ‘but we don’t have to smell him.’ That phrase -- don’t get on the empty car -- got me thinking about how people often try to close off and isolate things that disturb us. Maybe because they smell bad, but also because they’re sad and difficult and we don’t know what, if anything, we can do about them. So the story ‘Empty Cars’ is about someone who’s trying to close off one particular thing, something difficult and sad that she wants very much to ignore, and the result is that it ends up invading her daily life in all these comically grotesque ways."

Lisa Morton on "Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots": "My story for Blurring the Line, ‘Woolen Shirts and Gum Boots’, was taken from a nineteenth-century newspaper article found in a creepy scrapbook my bookstore once acquired. The scrapbook, entitled ‘Sweet Death,’ was a collection of nineteenth-century articles about strange happenings and horrible deaths. Although many of the stories in the book seemed to be more ideally suited to serving as the basis of a horror story -- for example, I almost considered doing one based on a piece about a new preacher who inexplicably went mad during his first sermon before a large crowd -- this story of two teenage girls dressed as men trying to flee abusive families really captured my imagination. I thought about how different things were then, about how the girls must have been both very courageous and maybe a little crazy to think they could do this. I ended up using as many details from the original article in my story as I could, and I hope I’ve captured some of what those two girls likely endured."

Patricia J. Esposito on "Distorted and Holy Desire": "It was my idea to go see the local band. A winter night of soft snowfall. He stood outside the venue, under the spray of streetlight. Black curls warmed his face, snow flakes drawing down his eyes. A small smile lifted. No one could imagine what was in store. A man, a body. Voice and guitar. I thought about slipping on the icy walkway. Instead, we slipped inside, unprepared. “That was him,” I whispered to my husband, and there he was skirting through the crowd, removing his scarf, winding in with his unwinding. None of us, propped on barstools and benches, could really be prepared for the splendor that was to come. But he began to strum, he began to reach; the room evaporated, and our bodies became the fallout of his nuclear emotion. Shattered and yet transcending. I wondered then if death could be this good. And I wrote the story of my fallout."-- On seeing Adrian Perez of Beautiful Collision at Kiss the Sky, Batavia, IL

Rena Mason on "Nita Kula": "I’d always wanted to do a version of a zombie story that had a scientific, fact-based, historical origin, and I’d always loved the premise behind The Serpent and the Rainbow and knew that if the opportunity arose I’d use something similar for what would probably be the closest thing I’d ever write to an actual zombie story. Being an R.N, I often found myself working side by side with traveling nurses from abroad. It takes a strong personality type to come from another country and be able to provide a vast range of care in a foreign land. Growing up somewhat sheltered, I envied this kind of adventurous personality, so I decided to use a traveler I’d met from New Zealand who had a very take-charge, shut up-and-just-get-the-job-done, no-bullshit attitude as my main character. She also probably pissed me off at some point, so in my story I made her vulnerable by using cultural differences in a densely populated, diverse city that’s an external visual paradise in order to push her over the edge into discovering the horrific possibilities that might lie within."

James Dorr on "The Good Work": "Let’s do it then,” Wendy said.  She led Coz and me out of the alley, around to the front door, where we started singing -- Coz just pretending, because of his froggy voice.  We started out with “God rest ye merry,” and then did some “Greensleeves,” and Wendy was real good like she’d practiced singing, or else had a real knack.   
(from “The Good Work”)
But how accurate is the Dickensian image of jolly underage carolers spreading Christmas joy from house to house in Victorian London?  I have read that in actuality it could be more like a shake down operation; the picturesque urchins would deliberately sing out of key, continuing until they were given bribes to go away.  Except that some children may have had a bigger, more serious game in mind -- one in which they must sing well enough to be asked inside."

Steven Lloyd Wilson on "Misktatonic Schrödinger": "I've had stirring down in the depths of my mind this idea of a Lovecraftian story set at the South Pole during a whiteout ever since, well, I read several of Lovecraft's novels on a trip to Alaska. I know, Lovecraft himself has several such stories, there's The Thing, and a dozen others. So, real original, but I had this feeling about it. And then there was that XKCD strip (https://xkcd.com/1235/) pointing out that sightings of UFOs and other such phenomena have plummeted since the ubiquity of cell phone cameras. But what if shining the light into the darkness doesn't show that nothing was ever there, but simply that the room is empty when you're looking."

Peter Hagelslag on "Fearful Asymmetries": "‘Fearful Asymmetries’ basically began—I wrote this two years ago—from a typical ‘what if’ premise, but then threefold: What if current trends of random killing sprees and terrorist attacks not only continue, but increase, and we decide to tackle this by extremely increased surveillance? What if we decide to guard the guardians through electronic and biometric means? What if that very system then gets hacked(*)? I personally do not believe we should use an army of genetically engineered, bio-modified, highly paranoid cyborg cops on every spot where we can expect danger (which actually means all public spaces). ‘Fearful Asymmetries’ tries to show why that’s probably a very bad idea. However, I am dismayed at how certain parts of this made-up story hold up. It seems things are indeed moving in that direction, which scares the shit out of me. To wit, a recent article in the Verge (Who controls the cop cam?): http://www.theverge.com/2015/11/16/9724644/police-tech-body-cams-transparency-violence-taser . This story is indeed meant as a dystopia that should not come to pass, not as an accurate prediction of the future. So I do certainly hope it is wrong in its extrapolations. (*) = spoiler alert..."

Friday, November 13, 2015

Halloween 2015 Retreat to the Coppertoppe Inn

(me, looking loopy after a luxurious one-hour soak in my suite's
gargantuan whirlpool tub)
From Friday, October 30 through the First of November, ten members of my Berlin Writers' Group and its extended family retreated to what must be one of our fair state's best-kept secrets, the Coppertoppe Inn and Retreat Center. I discovered Coppertoppe last March after several in BWG mentioned doing another autumn retreat -- perhaps to one of our local high-end hotels here in New Hampshire's North Country. It turned out that the hotel of choice had closed down, leading me on a web search in between the penning of fresh pages to find other possible venues. And, as was often said and emoted during our weekend stay, we made the correct choice in our commitment to this wonderful literary destination. Hosts Sheila and Bill took great care of us -- me, almost from the moment I landed at the gorgeous B & B located on a rise overlooking Newfound Lake.

The retreat actually started for me several days before heading south from my front door to Coppertoppe. In the spring, I invited my dear friend Tina to join BWG for the retreat. Tina and I were thick as thieves in high school, a difficult but supremely formative era in my life. During that time, as I embraced my individuality, creativity, identity, and, yes, weirdness, Tina was the best friend I could have asked for. At the onset of sophomore year, I confessed to her that I wanted to be a writer. We instantly bonded -- I didn't know until then that she wrote poetry. For the entire year and the next one that followed, we were inseparable, often times riding the bus back to her house where we worked on our creative writing endeavors instead of homework, watched episodes of our beloved Star Blazers, which ran at 3:00 in the afternoon, and Force Five, another Japanese anime import about giant robots defending the Earth, that followed. Flash forward thirty-five years, and the star of Star Blazers, the fabulous Amy Howard Wilson ("Nova") has blurbed my book about giant robots, Tales From the Robot Graveyard, and my great friend traveled far north to stay at our home, where we would write and laugh and travel through time before departing for the retreat together.

(Tina on the famous Coppertoppe glider)
The ride south through Franconia Notch to the town of Hebron was smooth and delightful, the fun enhanced by the addition of mystery writer and fellow group moderator Irene Gallant, whom we collected en route. As soon as we landed to a house filled with writers, most already composing new work, I was inspired by the view and venue. I learned that I would be staying in the Garnet Suite, which boasts a bed that would impress Louis the XIV, complete with a gargantuan bathroom covered in about an acre of serpentine marble tile and boasting one of those showers that makes a person recently turned fifty feel like pampered royalty. I carried up my few bags (I've learned to pack smartly and travel lightly after so many literary adventures) and then headed downstairs to the B & B's vast library to begin writing. It turned out that I hadn't packed as smartly but definitely lighter than I'd thought, when my computer shut itself down in power-saving mode, and I realized I hadn't brought the power cord with me.

No worries, however. Bill, a tech wizard, produced the perfect temporary loan, one of several Coppertoppe keeps on hand for those just-in-case emergencies. Soon, I was up and running, surrounded by books and other respected writers, and I quickly belted out the last 2,500 words of a first draft of "Vampire", a Halloween story moved to the front of a very long line of works in progress thanks to a writing prompt given out by the fabulous Judi Calhoun. The following morning, freshly showered (and feeling a lot younger than my years), I sat at the incredible writing desk in the Garnet Suite and began working on a fantasy short story that has lingered in my idea catalog for twenty-two years. After a struggle to find the groove, I decided to take a nap in my enormous bed. I passed out, unaware of how depleted my creative batteries have been, and slept like a baby.

(Me reading on Halloween Night)
After waking, I decided to indulge in a long, lazy soak in the suite's whirlpool tub. When I emerged, feeling like my body had transformed to the weight of granite, I flopped back in bed under the fan and, an hour later, had all the energy in the world. I powered through the struggle with the fantasy story, wrote almost to the end (some 5,000 words in all), and joined my fellow creatives downstairs in the library for our planned Halloween night reading. Irene had given us a prompt of her own for that night's event -- a Halloween-themed story, told in under 1,000 words. I shared "6 x 3", which weighed in at roughly 800. We went around the room, and I got to hear some amazing drafts, including a completed short story by my dear friend Tina, which inspired applause.  Another brilliant writer, Laura Bear (who traveled from New York State to join us), wrote a fantastic story on the spot, one set at the retreat involving the members of the group facing mortal jeopardy. The readings concluded with bags of candy and an abundance of inspiration.

Fittingly, November 1 dawned overcast and moody, with fog obscuring the lake, a preview of the gray time that starts in this month and dominates our part of the world until March. I packed my bags after another of those luxurious, long showers, ate a spectacular breakfast, and headed down to the library, for the very first of National Novel Writing Month's write-ins. I penned an additional chapter of my novel, bringing my total word count to just shy of the 9,000-k mark. By 1:00, the car was packed, the last of us departed, and the retreat came to its official conclusion. A fantastic and productive time, we're already planning our next visit to Coppertoppe!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

BEHOLD -- A BLEAK NEW WORLD!

In June of 2014, I gave myself a much-needed permission slip to free write, the act of putting pen to paper to be transported wherever stylus and imagination chose to lead me. It turned out being more fun than I'd expected, and highly productive -- some ten stories, short and long, written over the course of almost two weeks. Among the completed story drafts was one titled "Third World", in which a young girl in a dystopian future society labors in a factory job to survive. I was deeply affected by the character's travails, and the bleak world into which she'd been born. There wasn't a whole lot of the usual prep work that goes into the creation of my writing, no story premise or outline jotted down on a note card, no dreaming up the starting or ending scenes. I simply sat on my sun porch with iced coffee and trusted the muse to get me from Points A to Z. And it was more fun than should be humanly possible.

Like the majority of the stories written during that marvelous spell -- a western, a SF tale, several horror efforts -- I later edited the draft of "Third World" for submission to publishers and sent it out the door. This particular tale went to the fine folks at Raven International Publishing, who were reading for a dystopian-themed anthology, A Bleak New World, where it was soon accepted. This week, the anthology debuts, offering dark glimpses into possible futures best avoided apart from visits to within the covers of this wonderful reading experience. Bleak is the brainchild of RIP head honcho Clark Chamberlain. As any familiar with Clark's fiction writing work, daily podcasts, or his stellar The Book Editor Show, Bleak's subject matter is a fair departure for the publisher's normally upbeat vibe. So why did he go the dystopian route for RIP's first multi-author anthology?

"I choose to be upbeat and positive. I have slogged through a lot of life, death of children, divorce, crises of faith, and then there was Iraq," says Clark, a former and still part-time soldier. "What I did there and what I was willing to do there really made me look at myself in a negative light. When I got home I was drifting, had thoughts about killing myself or at least going back to the war. Some of my persona is a mask to hide that darkness, or at least keep it down. I want peace so badly in this life because I've seen the darkness. I feel that we need to confront those emotions and feelings and really look hard at ourselves. Through story we have that opportunity. And on the business side, my then partner and I thought the sci-fi community would be a good place to dive in."

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World was the inspiration behind Bleak.

"I read that and thought this isn't much of a dystopia," Clark adds. "Being satisfied with your lot in life, that sounds pretty great. I'd much rather live there than 1984. So I wanted to see what others could come up with and I was pleasantly surprised."

Several of my fellow authors in A Bleak New World's Table of Contents shared the back-stories behind their stories.

Andrew J. Lucas on "Day Worker": "In recent years I’ve moved from frontline employee positions in call centers to management and supervisory positions.  This has given me a unique, well sort of unique, perspective on my workplace.  Being asked to mold the behaviour of employees or hire employees with a specific skillset has let me see how potentially interchangable any of us are.  In point of fact we are all just a set of skills, behaviours and responses to various stimuli.  Heck, my day job runs itself via a set of processes and protocols.  One of my peers made the offhand comment that you can’t teach good customer service skills but what If you could simply download them?  What would the world look like if you didn’t need to spend five years in university to become a doctor?  What would an employment agency look like in this ‘utopia’ where everyone was as skilled as everyone else when they wanted to be?  What if it all went wrong?"

Eileen Maksym on "Incarnation": "I majored in philosophy in college, and followed it up with a master's degree in theology.  One of the things that intrigued me in my studies was the mind-body problem. How much of what makes us ‘us’ is physical? How much of it is metaphysical, be it called a soul or a more hand-wavy consciousness? I would often confront friends (and acquaintances...and people at parties...) with this question: if you were to switch brains with a friend, which person is you and which is your friend? Or are two new people created in the melding of minds and bodies? My short story ‘Incarnation’ is a meditation on that question.  What happens when a mind is put into a new body, and that body's urges are diametric to the principles of that mind?  And in the end, it raises the inevitable question: how is that any different from the war between the mental and physical that goes on within so many (perhaps all) of us?"

Nemma Wollenfang on "GOD is in the Rain": "We all look forward to that bleak dystopian possibility and we all picture it in different ways. Some imagine it as a cataclysmic natural event, some lean towards a fatal clash of opposing military powers. Mostly violence and panic reign supreme and the remnants of humanity are lawless and brutal nomads. In ‘GOD is in the Rain’ I wanted to depict a future where the decline of humanity was not a sudden and violent occurrence but one that was slow and creeping and almost gentle, however ultimately destructive. One where the survivors could not afford brutality. The basic bones of the story had been rattling about in my head for a while, though I didn’t think of giving them flesh until being unintentionally prompted to by a reader of my online story. This individual has always been very encouraging and supportive of my writing… and just happened to have an almost identical username to my working title. It was fate, or perhaps divine providence. Simply seeing their name led me to sit down and type it out. So this one’s for you, reader. Thanks for the inspiration."

(Raven International Publisher Clark Chamberlain)
Sealey Andrews on "Touch Piece": "The idea for my story first took shape while watching an episode of Storage Wars where they discovered an antique medicine doll in a storage unit. I'd never heard of them before and was instantly intrigued. (If you don't know what they are, you can find out more here.) ‘Touch Piece’ is my envisioning of the aftermath faced by a world that's been devastated by rape culture. I wanted to play with the concept of technology progressing toward touch applications, while sexuality moved in the opposite direction -- hands off. I drew on tropes from classics like The Handmaid's Tale and A Clockwork Orange.  Blade Runner was my inspiration for the noir mood and atmosphere."

Josh Schwartzkopf on "Elysia": "Irony has a peculiar interest in our society.  It’s akin to standing in an elevator, waiting for the door to close when someone cries out, ‘Hold the door!’ instead you let it shut, snickering your way to the next floor -- and then the elevator breaks down.  There’s a morbid fascination with ironic situations.  I feel that was the basis of this story.  It’s ironic that these poor colonists have traveled millions of miles to reach a new home planet with a misspelled name only to find themselves living in the same squalor that they left behind on Old Earth.   Even more ironic they are being targeted by an invisible enemy who is killing them off one by one and they are powerless to stop it.  And the final irony, they are religious fanatics who despise technology and abhor artificial intelligence, so, of course, the only thing that can save them is that which they cannot abide.   I’m thrilled that this story has been included in A Bleak New World and through this experience (and Clark’s vote of confidence), I was inspired to flesh this story out into a full novel which I’m currently shopping around among various literary agents." 

Chris Galford on "Clinging": "Tragedy is a staple of the apocalyptic. Not just tragic situations, but tragic characters forced into them. It makes sense for a world that is as unforgiving and unrelentingly dangerous as these visions of the future -- but what is more terrifying, more profoundly heartbreaking, than a character hiding from themselves? I have always danced with threats external and internal alike in my works, but it is the internal which most fascinates me -- the duel we all dance on a daily basis of us against our own minds. In my writing I have the tendency to take this to extremes, exploiting the fragility of the human psyche under fantastical situations. What better chance to explore the fight against the beast known as grief than when one also has killer robots nipping at their heels?"

Friday, October 23, 2015

From the Bookshelf: ONE MAN'S CASTLE by J. Michael Major

There’s a moment early on in J. Michael Major’s brilliant crime novel, One Man's Castle, where it grows increasingly more difficult to breathe. The reader begins to believe he’s there, underneath that house, not simply observing the confrontation between tragic homeowner Walter Buczyno and unwanted return visitor Harris, the young punk who first broke into the Buczyno house when Walter’s wife Dottie lay dying in an upstairs bedroom. Down there, aware of the icy cold filtering in through the smashed basement window Harris used to access the house, and then standing outside with Riehle and Capparelli, the detectives assigned to the case when pipes frozen by Harris’s home invasion lead police to uncover human remains in the Buczyno crawlspace, thus forcing Walter to flee. The brutal Chicago winter is like another main character in Major’s fantastic page-turner, in which equal time is split between Buczyno’s flight and the detectives’ pursuit of a man they at first label a serial killer. A fantastic read, I couldn't put Mike's novel down -- it's the perfect novel for these increasingly short, dark days. It's a great read for any time of the year, in fact.

I first had the privilege of getting to know Mike after we both appeared in Splatterlands, an anthology of unapologetic, gore-soaked horror published by the fine folks at Grey Matter Press. Since, he's become a valued colleague and friend. It was my pleasure to sit down and talk with Major, who took home the 2014 Lovey Award for his novel (handed out at the annual Love is Murder conference), and which was just released in paperback from Worldwide Suspense, a division of Harlequin.

What is it about the crime drama/mystery genre that inspires you as a writer and reader?
The fact that it allows me a venue where I can explore issues that anger/irritate/frighten me in the context of a story. My ideas often come from a combination of something I have read or seen combined with a completely different event that I’ve watched on the news, and I think: If I twisted both of these ideas a certain way and combined them, what would be the result? The crime/mystery genre, like the horror genre, allows the writer to explore the various gray areas that define good versus evil in our complex and confusing modern world. And I try I present them in a way that readers can relate to. 

Please open the door and invite us into your writing space -- what would we see?
There are a couple of places in our house where I enjoy writing. One is at the desktop computer in the corner of our family room. I am surrounded by books written by my favorite authors, photos of my family, and a shelf of reference books when I need to consult something. There is a window above the shelf where I keep my Lovey award, though I usually keep the shades closed. In this space, the surrounding darkness helps me focus on the intense action and horrific scenes. My other favorite space is at the dining room table, where I often open the window to enjoy the view of our backyard and smell the scents of everyday living, like freshly mown grass or something cooking on the grill. Here is where I usually write the lighter, down-to-earth scenes in the story.

One Man’s Castle is an intense page-turner -- muscular writing, engaging story and characters. Share the back-story behind the creation of your novel with us.
Well, first, thank you very much for saying that it is an intense page-turner! I sincerely appreciate it. The novel started out as a combination of two short stories, “One Man’s Castle” and “The Grieving Puppeteer.” I had been writing short stories for many years. My writing friends kept pushing me to write a novel, and I kept fighting it, saying I didn’t have the time needed to write one. But after the short story of the same name was done, the characters of the detectives didn’t shut up in my head, so I knew there was something more there that my mind wanted to explore. The first thing I did was read and analyze how other authors expanded their stories without simply turning them into longer, padded versions. (One example was how Lawrence Block converted “By the Dawn’s Early Light” into When the Sacred Ginmill Closes.) In the OMC short story, Walter got off the plane and the detectives immediately apprehended him. So the first thing I needed to do was not have him get on the plane coming home. OK. Then where would he go? What would he do? The short story version also had the detectives already working together. How about if I showed them meeting for the first time? What are their back stories? What might their conflicts and motivations be? Then I took Walter’s story of pent-up, long-term rage and contrasted it with the initial shock of the puppeteer’s loss and his downward spiral into insanity, and wove them together. I wrote down all the ideas, then put them in order in an outline with chapters that only had a one or two sentence description. This gave me the general idea of what needed to happen and where, but allowed me the flexibility to discover other things during the writing of each chapter. (One example was when Walter stops along the Mississippi River to take a leak and sees something that is very important for later. I was very depressed at the time I was writing this chapter, and I realized that at this point in the story, Walter might consider suicide. So I used my own depression to enhance what he was feeling. I hadn’t planned on that at all, and it made the scene more vivid.) Like this, I treated each chapter as a short story, making it more bite-sized and less intimidating, checking each one off as I went along, until I put them all together and finally completed the novel.

(the hardcover release of ONE MAN'S CASTLE)
What’s the J. Michael Major creative process?
Sadly, “haphazard” is probably the best description. As I said earlier, the initial ideas come from a combination of two separate events that need to “percolate” in my head for a while. My day job is time consuming, and while I am able to jot down ideas or phrasings here and there, most of my actual writing is limited to Wednesdays and Sundays. I also can’t just sit down and crank out a few pages. Like a Method actor, I need to become the character -- what does he see, feel, smell -- before I can begin writing. So this takes time. Then there is the fact that I write out of order. I long ago learned that I don’t write linearly. I wasted a lot of time trying to write the way everyone wanted me to. I finally realized that if Chapter Four is next on the list, but Chapter Seven is playing in my head, then I had better work on Chapter Seven. All the kinks could be worked out later during revisions. That’s what word processing is for. Never think “Oh, I’ll remember how I wanted to write that when I get to it,” because you won’t. Staying in the moment keeps things fresh and detailed. Honestly, I wish I could say that I was more disciplined. But hopefully by reading this, those readers who have hectic lives and want to write a novel, but are overwhelmed by the process, will think: “Well, heck, if that unorganized guy can do it, so can I!”

What are you presently working on?
I am writing my second novel that uses the same detectives from One Man’s Castle, as well as a couple of short stories. Thanks for asking, and for this great opportunity. I had a blast!