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The Longest Night of the Year

Supernatural-Tales-22

My short story, "The Longest Night of the Year," is seeing print in David Longhorn's Supernatural Tales #22.  Support the small press and pick up a copy!  And, hey, going green's no excuse: this magazine's available on Kindle as well (too bad there's no link for this, but seek and you shall find).

"Longest NIght" is a story I wrote several years ago, when most people's fortunes were taking a major downturn.  Or perhaps I should say, just beginning to take a downturn.  We're not really out of the slump yet, are we... 

Inspirational factors in this tale: Simon Kurt Unsworth's Church on the Island, one world-class sour economy, and two nephews, Connor and Aidan, my "keepers of the light."  So, guys, please: don't be afraid of the dark!!
ShadowShowCover

With your summer reading stack thinning or exhausted, and with the air turning bright and crisp as the white of an apple, there is no better time to revisit the work of Mr. October himself--or the writing of some of those his work (and life) inspired. For this last, pick up a copy of SHADOW SHOW: ALL NEW STORIES IN CELEBRATION OF RAY BRADBURY. Some of the contributing authors of this anthology I associate with literary journals (for instance Dave Eggers and Bonnie Jo Campbell), and others with genre magazines & good old-fashioned horror (Robert McCammon and Gary Braunbeck), and that is one thing that drew me to this anthology as it was going to publication. Ray Bradbury never split hairs between literary and pulp fiction; good, emotionally-resonant storytelling alone interested him, and he spoke with equal pride of placing stories in Weird Tales as in Harpers.

Some stories directly invoke Mr. October, alluding directly to stories the contributors were particularly fond of. Neil Gaiman's THE MAN WHO FORGOT RAY BRADBURY and Robert McCammon's CHILDREN OF THE BEDTIME MACHINE. In lesser hands, these stories might have devolved into something of a toastmaster's review of Bradbury's greatest hits. But Gaiman and McCammon have both created protagonists of flesh and blood, and you come to identify with them--and with Bradbury as their guardian angel, come to inspire them--and show us what it means to "Live Forever!"

Other stories don't raise Ray Bradbury's name, but each story ends with the contributor's notes about Bradbury's impact on their writing. Mort Castle's LIGHT gives us Marilyn Monroe's considerably darker journey toward artistic immortality, and her relations with mentors of her own. If her mother's obsession with Jean Harlow isn't disturbing enough for you, nor her unhappy marriage with Arthur Miller, then wait till you discover Marilyn Monroe's own comic source of inspiration, which she uses to great effect at an orphans' home: a devastating selection of detail that really brings her to life. As an amateur writer myself, I enjoy finding out about other writers' revision processes. Sometimes those revisions are actually other stories; this is Mr. Castle's third Marilyn Monroe story. In his words, "Perhaps one day I'll get it completely right." Nice to know I'm not the only one that completes a story, only to feel not completely done with it--or that's not done with me. But do yourself a favor, and read at least one other "attempt" as well, or better yet listen to it at Pseudopod.org at http://pseudopod.org/2009/10/09/pseudopod-163-i-am-your-need/

The stories in this anthology have that emotional honesty that makes stories stick in your mind. The sorrow in stories like Audrey Niffeneggers' BACKWARD IN SEVILLE and Sam Weller's THE GIRL IN THE FUNERAL PARLOR will haunt me through October, and it will take another cup of joe to warm the chill out of my bones after Eggers' harrowing WHO KNOCKS? (suggestion: memorize this short little piece and share it with the kiddies next time you go camping, and just before taking'em out fishing on the lake). Braunbeck's unsettling tale of "mentorship" in FAT MAN AND LITTLE BOY was no less disturbing, on a subtler psychological level.

Highly recommended.

China Doll Recall

In southwest China: a forced abortion, suicide--a grieving husband's rage. And in America: one ordinary George is bringing home a doll for Daddy's girl, a toy "Made in China"--for revenge.


This story was originally written three years ago for Alien Skin Magazine's flash fiction contest, on the prompt, "Terrifying Toys." I didn't win, but my story was later accepted for publication in "All Hallows: the Journal of the Ghost Story Society," now sadly defunct (or at least on indefinite hiatus). David Longhorn of "Supernatural Tales" was kind enough to give my china doll a home in his journal.

In addition to the engaging dark fiction the journal publishes, the cover art these last three issues (17 through 19) has also been superb. And I count myself lucky, too, in that my story has ended up in the issue featuring my favorite cover to date.

I've only just received my copy this weekend, but I'm quite excited to read the other stories--in particular, David Surface's "The Smell of Red Clay." Between the olfactory title, and the opening paragraph, I'm hooked; but I do need to wait to read the rest.  The table of contents includes:
  • Flower of the Sun by Colin Insole
  • Housing Problems by Gillian Bennett
  • The Ticket Collector by Stephen Cashmore
  • China Doll Recall by Yours Truly
  • Is for Ilinks by Louis Marvick
  • Camilla by D. Siddall
  • The Smell of Red Clay by David Surface
 

Thank You, Ray Bradbury



For your essay, "Zen in the Art of Writing" and for those excellent words,

WORK - RELAX - DON'T THINK.


If you haven't read this essay, you're in for a treat. This is one of those essays that I read periodically, because, according to my friend Jon, such writings about writing contain secrets that don't reveal themselves until after the second and subsequent readings...(Jon, if you reading this, please give me a link to that text!)

Too many times I've hesitated writing a story that really inspires me because I feel it's one I'm not ready to write. I'm not experienced enough to handle that one, I think. Let's not let THIS one be a sacrificial lamb to my inexperience. I'll just have to write several others that don't matter as much to me--and what? Because they don't mean so much, THOSE will be the stories that improve my writing? How daft is that reasoning?!

I knew it was flawed reasoning, but have wasted time on stories that don't mean so much to me. Mr. Bradbury had this to say on the matter:


[The writer] must ask himself, "What do I really think of the world, what do I love, fear, hate?" and begin to pour this on paper.


I felt a vague sense of guilt reading this essay. As if Mr. Bradbury were my Father Confessor, and I were confessing all the time I'd wasted NOT writing the stories that do mean the most...

If you're not working toward THOSE, Andrew, the work simply doesn't count. The several other stories that don't matter as much to you won't ever foot THAT bill. Go for the throat, without hesitation--even if ultimately your current attempt falls short:

"Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous, and therefore destructive of the creative process."


But these words stand out perhaps most of all:

"Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come."


Why most of all? Because I've always believed in them, for everything else I've ever done: guitar, piano, programming, learning another language. With each of those it was a given that the quantity of practice would yield quality. So why is it so stunning to hear those words related to writing?

I mumble, "Because I've been using my own language since I was a toddler. I should be SUPER at it by now. Just putting it all on paper, right?"

But finally I take comfort in those words: what they really mean is, "You can choose..."

Every Scene Should Have a Theme?



A fellow writer gawped at the notion that "every scene should have a theme."

I think I understand why she gawped. The same writer addressed overwriting as a weakness in rookies. The notion of planting a theme in every scene should raise hairs on anyone's neck!

I don't like the wording of "every scene should have a theme," probably because "a theme" makes it sound like a story should wear not only one or two major themes, but bristle with them like a car slapped up with bumper stickers.

I'd feel better with something along the lines of "every scene should contribute to the story."
And if some theme doesn't emerge from the action of the story, the writer's doing something wrong.
Such a story is pointless. Plot and theme have one thing in common: they're both "what the story's about," just on different levels.

Scenes that don't "integrate" DO threaten the story's "unity of action." Leaving them in gives a story the "purple patches" that serve no purpose at best, and distract and confuse at worst. Such scenes demand to be cut.

I don't think that "every scene should have a theme" is an imperative to write themes into a story's scenes. Yuck. If someone wants to sermonize, let him write a sermon! But it IS imperative to remove anything that doesn't belong in a story. Once the writer has drafted it, and knows what it's about, it's time to revise...and leave in only what counts.

It's dangerous for a beginning writer to analyze fiction the way they did when writing essays for Introduction to Literature--"Ooh! Ooh! Look, there it is again on page ... and page ... the THEME!" Dangerous because they end up thinking they've got to write theme into every scene--when the writer may not have been so hyper aware of the themes his reader is identifying anyway! Dangerous, too, because the reader hasn't seen the writer's initial drafts...and hasn't witnessed the writer's own process of determining what to leave out.

Tags:

Pac Man Turns 30

And off on a tangent, I'd just love to see productivity reports from around the cubicle world today, on this, Pac Man's 30th anniversary, what with Google's time-killing logo. It's the Eighties Child's Kryptonite. I mean, come on, guys, this is so downright evil that I can almost imagine China launching a preliminary cyberattack through the vaunted search engine, creating a nation of zombies...

Think I'll Yahoo today!

My Step Brother



Ahem. Rather than reply to Jon's comment regarding my somewhat tortured revision process ("Just so long as you're still having fun and enjoy reading it yourself"), I've decided to provide the inside scoop on my step brother's revision process as a composer/lyricist. While I have neither my brother's talent nor his celebrity, we've got temperament very much in common:

It was a hobbit hole...


...and that means comfort!

Don't believe it? Well, take a look!

Gee. Never thought I'd love a doll house, but in this case...I think that "The Hobbit" movie team needs to hire this woman. I also think that Maddie Chambers has actually been to Bag End, don't you?

I mean, Whoa.

[long pause]

Whoa...

Rack of Lamb



Been doing more of the cooking lately, and with the weather being as good as it is, we've brought the old grill out from under its tarp.

On my hunter/gatherer trip to Whole Foods, I bagged a couple frenched racks of lamb. Looked so good I couldn't resist! The recipe called for searing the rack, fat-side down. Before doing that, however, the recipe advised me to trim the fat down to a thin layer.

"What's thin?" I thought, and tossed the racks on the grill without further ado.

For anyone reading this who cannot bear unhappy endings, let me assure you that one of those racks came off the grill seared to perfection. The meat melted off the bone as we ate it. Let me not forget to add the part about the breadcrumbs pasted to these little darlings with the help of Dijon mustard, and further encrusted with mint and parseley leaves. I can't write any further about this epicurean experience, since I don't know whether all of my readers are 21 and older.

But too bad we couldn't repeat the experience with rack #2! This one had charred to a crisp on the outside. I found it on the grill, a ball of flame I had to put out--and by that time, well, done was done. Well done...

The cloud inside the singed lining was, thank goodness, still quite delectable. So it wasn't a total waste.

With the taste of both racks in my mouth, I set to work on revising an older piece of mine--a story that has fluctuated from short story to novelet length over several years now.

Having some distance from it now makes it easier, I think, to see how thick that layer of fat really is.
And to see how that layer--when set on high heat on some editor's desk--can burn the story. In a restaurant, no one would serve a charred rack of lamb--never mind how tasty it is once you get past the burned bits.

I've split my story into scenes, and used Excel to tally up word counts for each. In its current draft, the story stands at roughly 10,000 words. I figure 30% of that is...fat.

To work!

Morale Boost



I just realized, the last note on my blog has been about striking out, and has been there since the end of January. Oops!

On an up note, Ellen Datlow has posted her honorable mentions for Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2.

My micro fiction piece, "A Jury of His Peers," made the list. I've still got my copy of "The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, volume 3--the very first Ellen Datlow anthology I picked up...back in 1989!

It would be great to make the final cut one day! But while I'm dreaming, this brings me around to the topic of fiction quality...

For me one of the marks of a truly outstanding short story is: you remember it years later.

On the opposite end of the scale, of course, are the stories you stop reading a couple paragraphs in, because you just can't identify--or you can identify plenty that's, um, just wrong. These stories aren't dangerous.
If you stumble on them ever again, which isn't likely, you'll stop reading them again.

Somewhere in between, though, are the middling stories that entertain as you read them, and vacate short term memory within a day or two. Beware of these stories, because you run the risk of rereading them. Competent as they may be, you'll end up saying to yourself, "Oh, wait a second, I think I read this before..." And could have been reading something new, or something you have read before, but which was truly great.

Whenever I see an anthology bearing the words "Best" or "Great," the titles from my own mental "best" anthology spring to my mind like fridge magnets: William Faulkner's stories "Barn Burning" and "That Evening Sun" both devastated me, for different reasons; William Trevor's "Torridge" blew me away, probably the best story involving revenge that I have ever read (sorry, Poe, much as I still love "Hop-Frog" and "The Cask of Amontillado," Trevor's got you beat!).

Which brings me back to that volume 3 anthology. That dates back to 1989. I read it in my Hoosier days at Indiana University, and I still can recommend that anthology to anyone interested in picking it up at half.com, because of the following stories, which I still remember (though I haven't read them now in, what, two decades?):


  • The Edge of the World
  • Hansel's Finger
  • The Illusionist (yeah, the movie was very good--but it was only BASED on the story, and the story is GREAT, not "very good")
  • A Sad Last Love at the Diner of the Damned (and I generally don't go in for Zombie fiction!)
  • Shave and a Haircut, Two Bites
  • Timeskip
  • White Noise
  • Yore Skin's Jes's Soft'n Purty...He Said


Questions of God, alienation, love/loss, wild west justice in the 20th century...These are stories I wish I could reread again for the first time.