Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Drawer of Shame

Unfinished manuscripts (on right) in my Drawer of Shame
The summer I turned 15, I took my first glimpse into a much vaster universe than the hum-drum world I knew. I decided I was a writer and only wanted to be a writer. Nearly four decades and thousands of published works later, I've stuck to that pledge. I've lived a literary life and loved the process of living for literature. I love this writing life.

Early on -- within a year of that summer -- I read my first issue of Writer's Digest, a gift from my late, great Grandmother Rachel, herself a writer published in the classic Highlights For Children. That issue contained an article about famous writers and their writing spaces. One legendary scribe remarked in that article -- the ancient issue still on a bookshelf in my writing room -- that he'd published some 300 stories but that he easily had three times that number 'moldering away unfinished' in his home office. That math has horrified me since.

From the time I started, I've been what a member of my writers' group refers to as an 'Idea Hoarder'. I've had it in my mind that I should finish all that I start, including the good, the bad, and especially the ugly. Every December on a brisk Sunday afternoon while the elegant propane stove in our living room flickers, I routinely run through all of my old notebooks and notes to see if I've missed anything, if, somehow, a stray story idea has somehow fallen through the cracks. My stories, short and long, are my babies. Last year, I discovered three 'straybies' by performing my annual forensic search.

Ten years ago, that part of my writing space devoted to storing unfinished manuscripts -- the infamous Drawer of Shame -- sat 77 corpses deep. Also at that time, my list of unfinished ideas was a bloated, strangulating 268 titles and concepts long. For a decade now I've been writing like a dervish and bringing characters off ledges they've been left stranded on. I've reached hundreds of THE ENDs and winnowed down that unwritten list to 48 to-be-completed ideas. The Drawer of Shame now holds a paltry 23 started but stalled works-in-progress, and I hope to cut that number in half before the end of 2019.


My unwritten ideas list, all that red indication a project
completed in 2019
Why finish a story I'll never put on the computer following its longhand draft or submit? Because I loved that story enough to envision it and start it, and, yes, bring it to its conclusion. Because of that covenant I made with the Muse when I dared go by the noble sobriquet of 'Writer'. And because that's just how I'm wired.

By year's end, I hope to have my unwritten list down to a svelte 36 ideas, the lowest that number's been since I started this writing adventure in my teen years when I would extend my arms and welcome new ideas en masse into my embrace. As for the Drawer of Shame, it isn't a drawer anymore so much as a tiny plot of real estate, a way station for old friends to congregate for just a little while longer. Next year at this time, my hope is that not a single of my stories will be on that side of the drawer. They'll all have gotten their happy endings.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

An Amazing April Writing Symposium

Me teaching a packed room on living a literary lifestyle
Over the winter, I was asked to teach at what was presented to me as a unique opportunity. A literary event was being organized and it would be held at Coppertoppe Retreat Center, where my writers' group spent an unforgettable Halloween weekend in 2015. Caring for a disabled spouse makes travel now both rare and difficult, but I committed to the weekend while snow was piling up and the subzero winds howled around Xanadu. I knew I couldn't say no.

Over the next few months, I made arrangements for round-the-clock nursing care, formulated the workshops I would lead, and also set goals, professional and personal, for the weekend. One of the workshops needed to be on a subject close to my heart -- "Living a Literary Lifestyle", something I both preach and practice. I was also requested to hold a lecture on writing Mysteries, as I've had some wonderful successes in recent months in that particular genre. As winter waned, the towering walls of snow around our home melted, and the date arrived, I grew anxious and excited -- the latter because of the opportunity presented, the former because I would be leaving the house, loved one, and cats for the first time in nearly two years. It turned out they were in the best of hands.

I packed lightly, as I always did when traveling, and departed a full day before the symposium was scheduled to begin with good pals Edwin Berne and Judi Calhoun. We traveled down to beautiful Newfound Lake and the retreat center, the first arrivals. Our hosts, Sheila and Bill, were as gracious and pampering as always. An incredible dinner (pork roast wrapped in bacon) greeted us, and we three hung out in the big bedroom upstairs and talked the writing life. After dinner, we gathered downstairs among the cafe tables overlooking the lake and wrote. I began a terrifying ghost story called "The Woman in the Wallpaper", one of three projects I brought to work on between sessions.

The following morning found me again downstairs by 5 a.m., belting out fresh pages at a dizzying speed. Over that first early cup of coffee, our dear friends and fellow conferees The Sisters Dent motored up the long, winding drive and joined us for a scumptious breakfast. I finished the first draft of my story, and soon the masses descended. The symposium kicked off with spirited conversations and my first workshop as, outside, the sky opened up and rain hammered our surroundings.

Among the other esteemed teachers that weekend were Tor Books senior SF editor Mosche Feder and agent Beth Marshea of Ladderbird Literary Agency. Beth held an insightful open discussion on the writer-agent relationship, and on Saturday Moshe led a Milford method-style consultation with six of us novelists on our current projects. My novel-in-progress, Grave Space, earned high marks from he and Beth, and I am presently tearing through the remainder of the novel for submission.

With Edwin Berne, Beath Marshea, Clarence Young, Roxanne Dent, and Judi
Other wonderful workshops were held formally and informally around the enormous table-for-twenty at the heart of Coppertoppe, where a gourmet feast was offered throughout the weekend. Of particular note was a roundtable held by the amazing Clarence Zig Zag Young, a writer based in Detroit. His workshop on the joy of writing filled me with inspiration, and his body of work is superb. Following the completion of my ghost story, in and amongst I also wrapped a draft of "Absolutely Murderous", a murder mystery set at a drag review. That third project brought along for the weekend didn't get touched because, simply, we ran out of time. There was no lack of passion, which infused the atmosphere. Our final treat before departing for home was a workshop led by Dan Szczesny. Following yet another gourmet lunch, we headed for home, all of us committed to writing to the next level. It was a one-of-a-kind experience, and one I'm so grateful to have experienced as part of my literary life.

Monday, February 11, 2019

BLACK INFINITY 3

Some of my earliest memories involve Dan Curtis's dreamy soap opera set in coastal Maine, Dark Shadows. Often as a boy, I would wander the deep woods across the road from the enchanted cottage where I grew up, imagining myself as a character in that haunted world. In a recurring dream, if the wind was blowing just right, I could see Collinwood, the sprawling manor house in the soap, through the trees. On many autumn days in my boyhood, riding the school bus along Range Road, I spied the old Searles Castle on the hill. It was Collinwood.

From an early age, the ABC soaps influenced my imagination and my life. Years later, it was shows like Loving, All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital. In 1993, I found myself in New York City on the set of Loving, the guest of a friend who was hired for day player work. I wrote about the soaps for Topia and Soap Opera Update. When I began writing full-time, I'd camp in front of the TV with the daytime lineup playing, working on numerous projects. And when the majority of those classic soaps were cancelled, they haunted my dreams. In one such dream, I found myself on the set of a soap not unlike Loving in which the characters were protecting me from an evil that threatened the entire planet. The soap and my love for it held the key to stopping the evil. On a blustery October night in 2017, one of the gigantic pines that line my road crashed down, taking out the power. We were in the dark for four long, chilly days. During that time, I put pen to paper and belted out the completed first draft of "Hibernation", my novella based upon the dream. And I'm thrilled to report that it appears in the newest issue of Black Infinity, sharing space alongside work by such amazing writers as Lester Del Rey, Jack Williamson, John W. Campbell, and none other than Philip K. Dick.

It was my pleasure to talk soaps with publisher Tom English.


I grew up on soaps, first with Dark Shadows. I learned the importance of storytelling, cliffhangers, and characterization from the medium, which seems to be dead or at the least hooked up to life support. Do you think the daytime serial is still a valid form of storytelling, and why?
Well, your familiarity with soaps certainly does shine through, in the depth and richness of your writing, particularly in your story “Hibernation.” I think, like you, some of today’s best writers learned their story-telling techniques from the daytime-drama format. And those techniques are being greatly used in most prime-time TV dramas. The pacing is faster, of course, but the shows are more character driven. Savvy showrunners are now using continuing story threads, which often stretch across entire seasons, and weekly episodes tend to leave off on some startling new development or revelation—a cliffhanger. The CW’s Arrow and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are two good examples. My wife and I love both of these shows. We get wrapped up in them—and we never miss an episode. But prime-time shows weren’t always like this. Go back a few years and you’ll see that most shows did these little self-contained stories each week. You could easily miss several episodes, tune in weeks later, and never feel like you missed anything. But is the soap itself still a valid format? I don’t think they’re as marketable today. There’s only a few still running now. A big contrast to the 1960s and 70s when soaps ruled the afternoon airwaves. Viewers were extremely devoted to these shows—some of which ran for decades. But soaps moved at a much more leisurely pace. Not a bad thing, at the time, because there was more dialogue, more conflict, more suspense and more character development. Because of budget restraints, the stories had to focus less on plot and more on characterization. But this gave viewers time to get to know the characters almost as well as their own family members; to ponder their problems, their struggles, their emotional ups and downs. Plus, these viewers could tune in every weekday to visit with these familiar people. Which is why, for some viewers, the characters and situations in their favorite soaps took on a degree of reality. Not unlike what you depict in “Hibernation.”

Were you a Dark Shadows fan? If so, elaborate.
I was too young to appreciate the show when it first aired. Yeah, it was just too spooky for me. Bob Colbert’s opening theme alone was enough to send me fleeing to my room and the sanctuary of my comic books! I’ve since watched and come to appreciate the show—and its role in the evolution of the horror genre in print and on TV. Artistically, the show succeeds at conjuring an eerie, gothic atmosphere few horror movies manage. And there are some truly memorable scenes and performances. There’s some occasional scenery chewing, of course, but I think John Karlen’s performance as Willie Loomis was always top notch. Loomis was “Renfield” to Barnabas’ “Dracula.” And you can actually see the fear and trembling in Karlen’s characterization. And of course, in the character of Barnabas Collins, Jonathan Frid probably did more to popularize the notion of the sympathetic vampire, the cursed creature trying to fit into society, than anything else previously. Anne Rice was in her mid-twenties when the show aired, and I sometimes wonder if she was watching. If her 1976 novel Interview with the Vampire might owe something to Barnabas Collins. I do know this, though: the success of Dark Shadows paved the way for creator and producer Dan Curtis to do several made-for-TV horror films in the early 70s, including The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler. This in turn led to the weekly series Kolchak the Night Stalker. And that show helped inspire Chris Carter’s The X-Files. So Dark Shadows had a significant ripple effect on the dark waters of fantasy.

(With Loving and Buck Rogers star Thom Christopher)

There are some amazing reads in BLACK INFINITY 3 -- in fact, it's almost overwhelming the pedigree you've assembled. How did you select the stories in this issue?
I have good connections, I guess. I’m blessed to know some great writers. And I’ve read a lot, which helps in choosing the classic tales included in each issue. I’m picky about choosing stuff. Each story has to meet my narrow-minded criteria—it’s gotta be entertaining! I’m not looking for deep, hidden messages or grand literary allusions or innovative departures from traditional narrative style. I’m just looking for good, honest, old-fashioned storytelling.

What's next for BLACK INFINITY 4?
The theme is Strange Dimensions, with stories and comics centered around dimensional doorways, bizarre realities, warped space, etc. I’m still finalizing the TOC but we can say that your eerie, Twilight Zone-ish story “The Sacred Spring” will be a highlight of the issue. I’m excited about the future of the magazine, and I have some really cool themes and covers planned for issues 5 through 7. I don’t want to say too much about these yet. I just hope the magazine lives long and prospers so we can fulfill these grand designs.