Archive for August, 2010

As a Suffolk County Police Officer for more than two decades, I am used to writing “just the facts.” When I retired to spend more time with my family after having survived breast cancer, I wanted to pursue my dream of writing full-time. In addition to writing a true crime memoir, I have tried my hand at hint fiction, flash fiction, essays, short stories, and blog writing. I joined the NY/TriState chapter of Sisters in Crime and the Public Safety Writers Association and have attended several writing conferences. 

 Since retiring, I’ve read extensively, attended classes and workshops to learn more about writing. Along the way, I’ve picked up some tidbits from the masters. 

 P.D. James believes, “There could be no better apprenticeship for an aspiring novelist than a classical detective story, with its technical problems of balancing a credible mystery with believable characters and a setting which both complements and integrates the action.”

She also said,  “The construction of a detective story might be formulaic — the writing need not be.” On P.D. James’ website, she offers “Mystery Writing Lessons.”

Earlier this year, I joined the Short Mystery Fiction Society, an e-mail discussion group, consisting of “writers, readers, fans, editors and publishers of mystery and crime fiction from all around the globe.” The e-mail discussion is filled with solid advice.  Another helpful group, of course, is the Mystery Writers of America.

Robert B. Parker’s advice on writing and submitting a mystery novel? “Write it and send it in.” 

In the craft of writing a mystery, Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in 1936 that detectives must “display their clues to the readers as soon as they have picked them up,” and not saving them until the finale. It has been the test of quality for the modern detective story. 

Mickey Spillane said, “Nobody reads a mystery to get to the middle. They read it to get to the end. If it’s a letdown, they won’t buy anymore. The first page sells that book. The last page sells your next book.” For a list of works on writing mysteries, check out thrillingdetective.com.

James Lincoln Warren offers craft advice in “The Art of the Short Story” on Criminal Brief: The Mystery Short Story Weblog Project.

Hopefully it won’t take as long, but Sue Grafton said, “I spent the first twenty years of my writing career preparing for the mystery genre, which is my favorite literary form.” 

I can compress the two biggest pieces of advice Stephen King offers in his memoir, On Writing: “Read and write.”

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Kathleen A. Ryan‘s, “Playing with Matches” appears in the forthcoming W.W. Norton’s Hint Fiction: An Anthology of Stories in 25 Words or Fewer, edited by Robert Swartwood. She has won Flash Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction Awards from the Public Safety Writers Association. She blogs at Women of Mystery and http://www.kathleenaryan.com. Her fiction has appeared online at: A Twist of Noir, Nanoism, Six Sentences, Six Word Stories, Misfit Salon, and 50-to-1 blogspot. Follow her on Twitter @katcop13.

You set writing goals for yourself at the beginning of each year, right? Right? Me, too. We’re more than halfway through 2010. How are you doing with your goals? Uh huh. That’s what I thought. This may be a good time to revisit and revise your writing goals, even if you are on track.

According to everything I’ve read, for goals to be effective they must meet three criteria. They must be measurable, meaningful, and attainable.

A good goal for me is “to write and submit two short stories each month.” It’s easily measured. It has meaning and is attainable. A bad goal is “to become a better writer.” How does one measure that? A better way to approach this is to set a series of goals that, if completed, will make one a better writer; such as “reading three articles or one book on writing each month,” or “completing two writing courses during the year,” or “write four days a week for a minimum of thirty minutes each day.” These goals are measurable, meaningful, and attainable.

An additional criteria might be that the goal must be realistic. “Write every day” is an example. What if I find this impossible to do because of work and family commitments? Does such a goal help me, or does it hinder my progress? If my goal isn’t realistic for me, I could waste more time obsessing over not reaching it than I spend with my butt in the chair pounding out a series of words.

Goals need to motivate writers and help keep them on track. If a writer finds he is unable to meet a goal, maybe it’s a poor goal. The writer may be better off reevaluating the goal and changing it to something that is attainable. Otherwise, he may find himself giving up on writing altogether.

So revisit your writing goals and make adjustments to any you find difficult to achieve, or perhaps eliminate some. There’s nothing that says you need a specific number of goals. Mine fit on a 3×5 index card that sits next to my computer. And remember, in order to meet your goals they must be measurable, meaningful, attainable — and realistic.

Here are three articles on setting writing goals that you might find helpful.

Setting Effective Writing Goals by Moira Allen
How to Get There from Here: The Magic of Goals by Holly Lisle
Setting Your Writing Goals by Sharon Hurley Hall

** If you’d like, share one of your writing goals that you believe meets the criteria discussed above.

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Jim Harrington discovered flash fiction in 2007, and he’s read, written, studied, and agonized over the form since. His Six Questions For blog provides editors and publishers a place to “tell it like it is.” In his spare time, he serves as the flash fiction editor for Apollo’s Lyre .

Ragged, putrid, with rotted and swollen flesh, reeking of decay and hungry for blood, the vampire of myth is a far cry from that which we picture today.

Nosferatu is often mistakenly given as the original name for this creature, quoted by 19th-century British author and speaker Emily Gerard as being Romanian (or Transylvanian) for Undead. This actually seems to have been a joke by Ms Gerard, that was unwittingly picked up on by Bram Stoker in his novel Dracula. Romanian for Undead is actually “Nu este mort” or for not alive is “Nu viaţă.”

“No fora tu” in Romanian actually literally translates as “This will not bore you.”

However there is a real word for the undead in Romania and it is Strigoi.

Hardly surprising because the Vampire/undead blood feaster exist in almost every mythology in the world. For example the undead blood drinker is:

  • Marhaban in Arabia
  • Asanbosam in Africa
  • Soucouyant in The West indies
  • Mapuche in South America
  • Jiang Shi in China
  • Mandurugo in The Philippines
  • Nukekubi in Japan

In Literature the two real progenitors of the modern vampire are:

“Das Vampyre” – is a short story written by John William Polidori though originally published under the name of his patron Lord Byron in 1819. It features a very Byronesques Vampire called Lord Ruthven, a noble man of foreign extraction who despoils seduces and either kills or drives to suicide women. Ruthven also kills and corrupts men with equal careless and cruel abandon.
Thus is laid down the character and look of the classic Gothic Vampire from that point on. His hunting style and much of his mythological lore come from the second major source …

Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer (alternatively attributed to Thomas Preskett Prest)
Originally published in serial form two years earlier and probably contributed to by many staff writers, Varney achieved (Penny Dredful) novel status in 1847 under the authorships and editorship of J.M. Rymer. It is in “Varney” that we first find the wall crawling, bedroom invading, charming monster with a taste for virgins in nightgowns with heaving bosoms. Varney is also the first Vampire to steal wealth from his victims to set himself up as a gentleman throughout his immortal existence.

Abraham “Bram” Stoker took these elements, combined them and turned out his 1897 novel “Dracula”. Stoker laid down the basics of what might be term Vampire Lore and the basic format for every “gothic” vampire novel to come after him.

  • The Vampire is immortal
  • The Vampire is from a bygone age
  • The Vampire is foreign (it would be a long time before home grown Vampires began to emerge)
  • The Vampire in “Life” has gained a motivation to defy death (hatred of God, revenge, the search for a lost love etc.)
  • Vampires can not stand sunlight (in Dracula it is mild intolerance over the years it would grow to a fatal aversion)
  • Vampires respond badly to symbols of holiness
  • Vampire cast no reflection in a mirror (Silver is a holy metal and only reflects what “should” be there in God’s law.) 

Vampires can be killed only by:

  • Piercing their heart, preferably with a wooden stake
  • Decapitation
  •  Fire

Over the years of course these rules have evolved and changed and in some cases have been abandoned.

Stoker’s other massive contribution to the legend was to give the Vampire a nemesis and a weakness for that nemesis to exploit.
Stoker turned the vampire in to a tragic hero.

After Centuries of solitary immortality, the vampire is lonely, his need to be part of society, to find a mate and to experience ‘Life’ this is his fatal flaw.

Stoker’s vision of his Vampire was as typhoid Mary, a carrier of infectious evil, and a disease requires a Physician.
Stoker gives us two

Dr. Seward a practitioner of the modern science of Psychiatry and Prof. Van Helsing, the heroic academic medical doctor who has devoted his life to the eradication of Vampiric evil.

To assist these two, we have London city gent Jonathon Harker, Arthur Holmewood a minor aristocrat and Quincy Morris a six gun toting, Stetson wearing all American cowboy. Stoker even throws in telepathic half-vampire Mina, he was determined his troop of slayers would appeal to the widest possible demographic, and this to has become a generic convention.

Van Helsing, who incidentally shares Stoker’s first name, is now viewed by literary history as the hero of the story, but it is actually Quincy Morris who kills Dracula with a Bowie knife through the heart. (Good Marketing for the American edition of the book)

For almost sixty years this was the template for all vampires stories, until in the back end of the twentieth century the genre split in to five distinct sub genres.

1) The Gothic Vampire story:  as above this was an evolution of the Victorian story, using the Vampire as an allegorical device for the evils of plague and infection.
2) The Female Vampire story:  In 1872 Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, wrote Camilla, a story of a female Vampire, and there the genre stayed. Stoker was influence by this in so far as both stories are in part narrated by Doctors, but the female vampires in Dracula are weak, ineffective and obedient servants of the Count. By the 1960′s Camilla had been reinvented and the underlying sexual themes of the original were expanded out in to blatant lesbianism and female predatory tendencies. Camilla and the true life historical Countess Elizabeth Bathory became the foundation of a generic vampire that symbolised men’s growing fear of woman in an age of emancipation and the pill. The Female vampire does not need men to reproduce, is stronger than a man, and is not subject to his whims or intimidation. Terrifying to men of the war time generation.
3) The Vampire Hunter:  In these stories the vampire becomes secondary, a victim, the hunter become the hunted. Vampire hunters now have the tools to fight vampires effectively, they hunt in teams, usually lead by a slayer. A specialist appointed and trained by either the government, the church or more often than not some ancient and mysterious order dedicated to protecting the human race since time immemorial. The most well know example of this generic form is the increasingly ludicrous “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” TV series and it’s literary, comic book and other TV spin offs.
4) The Modern Vampire:  In this for the vampire has become something else all together. He or she is up to date, politically correct, astute and savvy. The modern vampire is a symbol for organised crime. They live in the underground, they exploit the living and use them as cattle and for income and in some cases is even an accepted or essential part of society. The first appearance of this sort of Vampire was in the novels of Robert Lory, in the 1960′s who had a team of slayers resurrect Dracula, and press him in to service to destroy a world now run by modern techno vampires. A theme later revisited in “Blade Trinity” (2004).   Dracula himself founded such a criminal empire in the Satanic Rites of Dracula a 1974 Hammer Horror film directed by Alan Gibson and written by Don Houghton
5) The Vampire Apocalypse:  Richard Matheson again shifted generic boundaries with the 1954 novel I Am Legend.
Matheson took the simple premise that if vampirism spreads like an actual disease but in a geometric sequence, from one vampire founding a colony the whole world could be infected in a matter of days. This is the situation at the opening of I am Legend, with one single human survivor who is immune to the vampire infection waging a day time war on the new superior species of the earth.
The idea has been used on a greater or lesser scale ever since, for example in They Thirst (1981) by Robert R. McCammon, in which Los Angeles falls to Vampirism and most famously in Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) which charts in detail the spread of vampirism throughout a small community which refuses to believe what is happening to it.

In recent times the Anne Rice has given the Gothic vampire novel a twist in her “Vampire Chronicles” series of novels. Anne Rice has them immune to modt traditional methods of slaying and uses vampires as radical sexually and religiously liberated creatures, but then Ms Rice has in the last twenty years completely redifined Vampire lore in her novels. Rice vampires are a genre unto themselves.

Terry Pratchett has spoofed the genre with his take on Vampirism as an allegory for Alcoholism in the Discworld books. Many of his vampires are “balck ribboners” vampires who have sworn off blood infavour of other obcessions, notably photography, coffee, tea and buns or in the case of Count and countess Notofaroutu running the Black ribon organistation itself.

The latest emerging sub genre is The Vampire as Superhero.

Unlike the Blade franchise, where a half Human/vampire hybrid turns slayer, this new generic form has the full vampire choosing to use his “powers” for good, and usually for the benefit of one special member of the opposite sex.  The closest to a sucessful attempt was the first “Hannibal King” a Marvel comics character in the Doctor Strange stories, a young vampire who by pure will has never given in to “The Thirst” in the ten years since his “turning” by Dracula himself.

It is a generic form yet to be defined and done well, though Anne Rice has Steered her “LeStat” books in this direction, LeStat remains an anti-hero where as “Edward” of the “Twilight” books is a fully fledged Hero.

“Twilight” (2005)has been badly received by many critics and die hard horror fans, but has returned to the Gothic Romance audience at which Dracula was originally aimed. Interestingly “Twilight” does give a new allegorical symbolism to the vampire. Author Stephenie Meyer is a devoted and evangelical member of the Mormon faith and so endows her vampires with the neo-religious feel of being religious outsiders the rest of the world misunderstands and feels the need to suppress. These vampires have been the victim of bad press and smear campaigns. For instance they do not go out in the sun not because it will kill them, but because it shows them up as angelic sparkling beings.

Which ever direction the vampire genre moves next, it certainly shows not sign of going away.

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Len Hazell is 46 years old from the north east of England, holds a degree in Media, and is majoring in writing for the print and broadcast media.  He has published in various magazines in the UK, fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and has had several plays produced throughout England.  He is currently working on his own musical adaptation of Arsenic and old Lace which he hope to stage in 2011. Len can be contacted at Bonniefans@hotmail.com. His music is available at http://www.nuzic.net/members/2565

If you’re like most writers, you can never have too many writing guides. The problem with some of them is that they are often for the novices, and you become bored while searching for the gems that you haven’t read in the other hundred or so books that you own. They say the same thing in a hundred different ways, and you think that you are reading something fresh and new only to realize that you already OWN this book, except it was written by someone else. Between the how-tos, how-NOT-tos, and the zens, the muses and sparks and flames, the daybooks, handbooks, and notebooks, you have read a million ways to approach craft and end up bewildered and frustrated.

Or better put by Raymond Chandler:

“Everything a writer learns about the art or craft of fiction takes just a little away from his need or desire to write at all. In the end he knows all the tricks and has nothing to say.”

However, there are some that are very instructive AND necessary, and they give you insight and solid footing so you can walk your own path.

Now here is my list of must-have books.

Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell:

I love this book because Bell does what one basically does in workshop – reads a story and critiques it for each element, and THEN takes it apart line by line to discuss it in very detailed notes. It has about twenty stories in it and you will be blown away by the introduction alone; he talks about writing fiction similar to the way Robert Boswell did in his dazzling lecture – with lines and graphs so you almost have a scientific and literary approach. The stories in this book include everyone from Mary Gaitskill and Peter Taylor to those of his former students. Get it from Amazon Marketplace very cheap.

Alone with All that could Happen by David Jauss:

One of the best essay collections I have ever read about the craft of fiction alongside of Robert Boswell (The Half-Known World), Charles Baxter (Burning Down the House) and John Gardner. If you are an AWP member, you can access some of the essays in this book from the Writer’s Chronicle archives for a taste.

179 Ways to Save a Novel by Peter Selgin:

Though it says to save a NOVEL, I have found especially helpful for stories because each of the ways he describes applies to both and the book is written in easily digestible chunks of information that you can refer to again easily. This is the book I take to work with me because of that; I call it my portable guerrilla workshop.

The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide by Becky Levine:

I love this one because it IS very helpful with creating thoughtful critiques, and it is worth reading even if you are not in a class or a workshop, especially if you will be interacting with other writers online through Zoetrope, etc.

 The Tin House Writer’s Notebook:

This is excellent because it takes many of the extraordinary craft lectures from the workshop and compiles them into this book and it includes audio from some of the lectures and panels. Since I was just at Tin House last month, I can vouch for how fulfilling an experience it was and the workshops were led by the top, most acclaimed writers in the country. This book costs a hundred times less and will tide you over until you get the sense to apply, like it did for me the year before. 

Turning Life into Fiction by Robin Hemley:

Now THIS one? Is probably my FAVORITE. I think it’s because I write from life almost exclusively and this book made me see where I was faltering – in trying to write from memory instead of using vivid detail and emotional truth to convey what I wanted to say. It’s been a while since I read it so I am reading it again, especially after receiving such extraordinary feedback from you all. Robin Hemley is also the director of the nonfiction program at Iowa. ‘Nuff said.

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 Rashena Wilson lives in New York and is at work on a short story collection and a book of essays.

Take an altar to a strange, ancient god, the dead rising from their graves, a small group of scientists using fantastic machines to fight supernatural forces, and throw in a giant marshmallow man and you have the ingredients for one of the most popular examples of “weird” fiction in the last thirty years. I grew up with the movie Ghostbusters, and it is still one of my all-time favorites, a blend of oddball science fiction, horror, and strange mythologies.  In short, what H.P. Lovecraft might have called “weird fiction”.  My indoctrination to Lovecraft’s work was still years away, but Ghostbusters had something special, something different. 

In his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft defines the genre:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain–a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

(you can read the entire long essay here)

What does that mean, in plain English?  For one, we’re not dealing with crime fiction, ghosts, or ordinary ghouls here, folks. We’ve stepped beyond the gothic ghost tale into something stranger.  The weird involves that which is infinitely stranger—perhaps even unknowable—and yes, includes a strong element of horror or dread.  What we know as the natural world, and natural laws, no longer have the same meaning or hold on reality.  Think of secondary worlds, parallel timelines, civilizations or sentient beings from elsewhere in space and time, and the infinite possibilities these elements imply. Lovecraft’s own work was littered with strange, ancient gods, dangerous wisdom trapped in odd books, and visits from the nether regions of space.  Some might argue such stories died with the pulp magazines of the 1930s, but take a closer look at what we call “slipstream” fiction today: a weird blending of science fiction, fantasy, and horror into something doesn’t always fit neatly in a genre box.  Even Ghostbusters, while clearly a comedy, had elements which were utterly terrifying and plenty of quirky science that skirted the fringes of “real” psychology and neurology.     

Weird fiction is still alive and well, properly evolved for a modern world in which our ignorance of the natural world reveals itself with ever miniscule bit of scientific knowledge we gain.  The more we examine outer space—or inner space—the more opportunity for weird stories to thrill our imaginations about what is out there.

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Aaron Polson currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit.  To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence.  His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires.  The Saints are Dead, a collection of weird fiction, dark magical realism, and the kitchen sink, is due from Aqueous Press in 2011.  You can visit Aaron and learn about his writing on the web at http://aaronpolson.blogspot.com.