Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Readings in the Genre: MONSTERS

Hey, everybody! Remember me? I'm back!

For the past ten or so years, I've been teaching in Seton Hill University's MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program. What that means is that I actually teach in a college masters program that's dedicated to horror, sci-fi, romance, mystery, etc. etc. etc. Such things exist. This semester, my RIG (Readings in the Genre... Keep up) class focuses on monsters. Not human monsters, mind you, of which there are plenty. But zombies, werewolves, vampires, and other creepy beasts that lurk under your bed at night.   Here's an excerpt from an older blog that bears repeating.

The Seton Hill "Readings in the Genre" course has begun, lead by your's truly. Our subject this time around?  Monsters.  They hold a dear place in my heart because, really, aren't we all monsters of a sort?  More on that in a minute. 

I've chosen a motley crew of misanthropic mayhem masters about whom my students must read.  Included are Vampires (that don't sparkle, dammit), werewolves, golems, demons and... well... snow.  Trust me, it all works somehow.  But I think the question that begs answer is this:  Why are we so fascinated by monsters?  Lets look at the famous monsters of literature (I'm not talking movies...Most of those are one-dimensional sacks of fetid dingo's kidneys) and see what makes them so special.

Adam (the creation from Frankenstein... yes, his name was Adam) fascinated us with his simplicity, his desire to be loved.  Child-like, he was dragged into this world and before he could even begin to question his existence, he was rejected by his creator.  Anyone who's ever watched children on the playground knows how children act:  As Adam himself stated, "If I couldn't inspire love, I would then cause fear."  How many children react to rejection with more rejection?  Most of them.  Adam is, for all intents and purposes, a child in the body of a man, lacking the maturity that comes with age, but possessing all the tools to destroy his enemies.

Look at Quasimodo from Hunchback of Notre Dame or Eric from The Phantom of the Opera and you'll see miserably misshapen men brought to their demises by the search for love and the madness that comes with it.  But the last two aren't "monsters," are they?  Not really, but they became monsters.  Much like we do.

Monsters, historically, take one of our darkest desires, one of our emotions, one of our flaws, and amplify it (or them) to ridiculous degrees until the creature in question becomes the stuff of nightmares.  So if that is true (and it is), then why are we so fascinated with monsters? 

Because they are us.  They are our fear.  They are our passions.  They are our souls, twisted almost beyond recognition and then shown to us.  They are what happens when we forget our humanity.  They are what happens when we lack the wisdom to walk away.  Monsters are designed to teach us lessons about ourselves.  You'll notice, I never called Adam a monster.  Because he wasn't.  His creator, Victor, blinded by ambition and selfish pride, was the monster.   Yet it was Adam with whom we identified.  Because we've all been that creature.  We've all felt betrayed, thrown out by those who should, but don't, care. 

They are us.  We are them.  When you read about monsters, think hard about them.  Sympathize with them.  Because they are our brothers and sisters.

So what's changed? Quite a bit, actually. The reading list has gotten longer, as have the lists of movies and short stories. And I think that's because monsters are still relevant. They are parables. They teach us what we fear, and show us paths through our own psyches. If you're in the class, strap in. If you're not and want to play along at home, here's the reading/viewing list:

  • I Am Legend- Richard Matheson
  • Breeding Ground- Sarah Pinborough
  • Cycle of the Werewolf- Stephen King
  • World War Z- Max Brooks
  • Snow- Ronald Malfi
  • Relic - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
  • 30 Days of Night- Steve Niles
  • The Call of Cthulhu- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • Packman's Model- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • The Outsider- H.P. Lovecraft (Download)
  • The Yattering and Jack - Clive Barker from Books of Blood
  • Rawhead Rex- Clive Barker from Books of Blood
  • The Funeral- Richard Matheson from I Am Legend
  • Alien- Sigorney Weaver, Ridley Scott
  • An American Werewolf in London- (1981) David Naughton, Griffin Dunne
  • Night of the Living Dead- (1968) Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea, Kyra Schon
  • The Thing- Kurt Russell, John Carpenter
  • Godzilla (2014)-Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe
  • The Blob (1988) - Shawnee Smith, Chuck Russell
Writer's Workshop of Horror - Michael Knost 

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Shy Grove and Self Publishing - Part I

Last year, I enrolled in an MFA program in Publishing and Writing Popular Fiction through Emerson University in Boston. My first two semesters (summer) went exactly as I thought they would. Literature courses, things of interest, and processes that would turn me into a more well-rounded writer. I went into the program without illusions and without thinking I'd be the most published person they'd seen (hear me roar). Rather, I went into it trying to find out where I was weak, where I could improve, and where I could grow.

Then the third semester hit. This was the semester I both most anticipated and most feared. See, it was the first one where work of my own would be thrown into a ring for open critique, a thing I've not had the luxury of in years. So what if there was another course on... lemme see... Book design? What the hell is that?

Turns out, it's exactly what you think it is. We were to take a manuscript (ours or someone else's) and build the publishable book for it from conception to completion. I've done similar work before, but never like this. About a month in, it occurred to me that, at semester's end, I'd be about a gnat's whisker away from having a publishable manuscript on my hands. Should I self-pub it? Or not?  Those of you who know me know that I've always been a vocal proponent of taking the traditional route (except on Droplets, which was extreme circumstances which I'm not getting into here). But the stigma of self-publishing has largely gone away in recent years, so I decided why not? I have two completed manuscripts that my agent (through no fault of her own) couldn't place, and they're doing no one any good just taking up space on my hard drive. What do I have to lose?

So here, then, is the process I went through with this new journey into self-publishing. There'll be several parts to this, so stick around for a while.

Step One - The Manuscript

Right. The first step to self-pubbing anything is to actually have something to self-pub. For me, I had two possibilities:  Shy Grove: A Ghost Story or Ungeheur. The first one is, as the title implies, a ghost story. It involves supernatural elements, possession, religious cults, dead babies, and a holy gang-bang. I can't imagine why any publisher would pass on that. The second is monsters that eat a small town. It features gore, depression, sorrow, sexual frustration, strong women, and monsters. Which one to pick...

Monsters or holy gang-bang... Hmmm
As you can guess, I chose the first one. Shy Grove: A Ghost Story clocked in at 81,000 words (novel length by any measuring stick) and had lots of positive feedback from publishers, with one telling me that they'd have taken it in a heartbeat, but they were squicked out by dead babies. Fair enough.

Once you get the manuscript chosen, it's a good idea to have your beta readers (you have those, right?) give it the old once-over to try to catch any and all of the nastiness that your mind didn't catch on your last read-through. Things like missing words (ahem), misspellings, punctuation errors, etc. Then it's time for your first big decision.

Step Two - Trim Size

The big question at this step is: what size do you want your book to be?

"What do you mean? Book sized!"

Right. But that's not how that works. Go to any bookstore and have a look around. Books come in all shapes, sizes, covers, etc. So how big do you want it to be? Didn't think about that, did you? Createspace, Amazon's self-publishing service, offers fifteen different sizes of books, all of which are available for you to use. You could have a book that's the size of a sheet of standard copying paper, or you could go all the way down to 5" x 8." It just depends on how you want your book to look. How much shelf-space do you want it to take up? Do you want it to fit in a back pocket? Do you want it to dominate whatever coffee table upon which it sits? Think hard about this step, because it only gets harder from here.

For me, I chose the 5"x8" option. Why? It doesn't matter. What matters is that's what I wanted to do, and you can make your own decisions on how big of a book you want.

Next blog, we'll discuss the fascinating, frustrating, and fun job of designing the cover!

See you next time!


Thursday, June 29, 2017

Growing as a Writer

At each Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA residency I attend, opening night is punctuated with a question that is designed to foster discussion throughout the week. We're supposed to use these questions if we finish our critique sessions and discover that we have time left over. It happens. The question at this residency was especially poignant, so I figured I'd discuss it here too. Quite simply:

How do you continue to grow as a writer?

The question, while directed at the students, is appropriate for every writer. The question actually was "How do you continue to grow as a writer once you no longer have grad school breathing down your neck," but it is appropriate for anyone who fancies themselves a writer. And there were lots of good suggestions. Form a writing group. Attend conferences. Write every day. Everything that was stated was geared toward the writing life and the output for which we all strive. But there was something that I felt wasn't mentioned. Something so simple, most people don't think of it.


"I'm going on an adventure!" -Bilbo Baggins

Let me explain.

If you've read this blog before, you know I'm a big proponent of primary research, which is a fancy term which means "experiencing the things you write about." It's different from the old chestnut of "write what you know" in that you go and research things. "Know what you write," if you will. It's well-documented that I've done some interesting (silly, weird) things in the name of primary research.  How does this relate to my advice? Simple.

Every experience you have makes you grow as a person.

Think about that phrase for a moment. Every. Experience. Things you love, things you hate, pain, pleasure, fear, exhilaration... They all do one thing: They add to the tapestry that is your life. They give you experiences upon which to draw. They change your perspective, micron by micron. They make your life experience richer, and allow you to know things that others might not know. In short, they help you develop into a more well-rounded person.

Those experiences also make you grow as a writer. They allow you to draw upon the emotions you felt, the revulsion, the joy, the fear... All of it. And they allow you to write with more authenticity. They allow you to reach into your own personal history of experience and distill it down for the world to experience.

So that's my advice to you. Live. Live fully. Live out loud. Live boldly. Have those experiences. Try these on for size:

  • See something on a menu you've never had?  Try it. If you hate it, use the experience. 
  • Make a point to visit a new restaurant every month. One with cuisine you've not tried. 
  • Go camping. 
  • Walk around the city about which you're writing. 
  • Go to a concert for a band you've never heard of. 
  • Take up a sport.
  • Learn to shoot.
  • Learn to ride.
  • Find out what it's really like to walk around in armor.
  • Find out how long you can actually swing a sword. 
Take the back road to your next destination. Stop along the way. Love with all your heart and let it get broken. Talk to people who know about your novel's subject. Here's an example:  Two students this past term (whose names I won't divulge here because I've already bragged on them in public enough) followed this path long before I suggested it. One of them went camping, alone, in the UP of Michigan. Did I mention she went BY HERSELF? Because she did. She said it was the most scared she'd ever been, and now she has an amazing point of view to write about. The other one wanted to know about suspension piercing. While she didn't go to that extreme, she did contact a local BDSM group and had them tie her up and suspend her from the ceiling. She now knows what that's like. How many of you out there know? I'm betting the number is small (though probably larger than I expect). 

So that's it. Live. Live boldly. Explore your tastes, your passions, your emotions. Build your tapestry of experiences, and live without boundaries. And then use those experiences in your fiction. Go out and dare yourself to be amazing. 


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Branching Out

There are times in our lives when we all do things, whether on purpose or not, that limit us. "I only eat" this or "I only wear" that brand, that type of thing. When we label ourselves, we limit ourselves. And, in doing so, we don't grow as human beings, or as artists. Imagine, if you can, being handed the variety pack of breakfast cereals and being told that, whichever one you choose, it's the only one you can have for the rest of your life. Bummer.

This past weekend at StokerCon (in Long Beach California), I met with my agent who did what she is supposed to do... She told me a harsh truth. The markets for horror are flooded. My work, she says, is good, but people just aren't buying it at this time. Horror's not dead, but it is in a state of overexposure. There are seasoned pros out there who haven't sold a book in a long time (me being one of those) because, well, people just aren't buying. I didn't want to admit it, but it's true.  And so the time has come.

See, for the longest time, a horror writer was all I was and all I wanted to be. I've only been good at a few things, and scaring the shit out of people is one of them, so I embraced it and ran with it. Hell, my website URL was AmericanHorrorWriter (both .com and .net because reasons). But back in the day, I had an inkling this might happen. So I registered a new domain name: It still sounds like horror, but there's now wiggle room as to what I actually write. Which brings me to the point of this blog:  What do I write?

Horror is still my first love, and I'm never stepping away from it. That's a fact. I will write horror until the day I'm dead, and probably even after that because that would be really creepy and awesome. But now, I'm branching out into four categories. The first two should surprise no one: Science Fiction and Dark Urban Fantasy.  The Stanley Cooper Chronicles, as you may know, is not straight horror. I've always billed it as "Dark Urban Noir Fantasy," so that's no real big stretch. Science Fiction has long time been a love of mine ever since I picked up the works of Phillip K Dick and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy when I was a kid. So those really aren't the ones that are scaring the hell out of me right now.

See, I'm of the belief that we should always do things that frighten us. We grow that we, gain new skills and confidence, and we experience new and amazing things. So I'm doing just that. I'm going to be writing a novel in a genre that scares the ever-loving hell out of me under a pen-name.


You read that correctly. Young Adult. I will be writing a YA-horror-dark-urban-fantasy very soon under the name William Strange. Go ahead. Get your giggles out now, but I'm going to do it.

"But wait," I hear you saying. "You said four genres. That's only three. What's the fourth?"

You really want to know? Okay.

Poetry. I'm coming for you, Wytovich.

I'll keep you informed of the latest.

Until next time...


Monday, April 10, 2017

Side Missions

Okay, hotshot, here's the situation: You've finished your manuscript. You've done the mandatory edit, revise, edit, cry, rage, edit, revise and revise again dance, and now it is finished. Finally. Truly. Finished. All that's left now for your newly birthed child is for your agent (or you) to sell it for a suitcase full of cash and promises of questionable moral behavior. So what do you do now?

Conventional wisdom says to do exactly what I'm pretty sure you're thinking right now: Start the next novel. But then you sit down at your keyboard and nothing comes. The pressure mounts as the damned cursor blinks at you from the screen, and every idea you have seems trite, seems stupid, seems worse than the book you just finished. It's frustrating. It's maddening. And you start to have those same negative creeping thoughts that burrow into your skull.

"What if I'm out of ideas?" "What if this is it?" "What if I'll never have another novel to write?" "The world is meaningless!" "I'm a hack!" "I may as well just gorge myself on Oreos and pizza and turn into a swollen toad and die!"
"Fuckoff... I'm stuffed...."

First off, calm down.

Second, there's something you can do. Instead of screaming and crying and throwing yourself on the couch in a fit of self-loathing, go on a side mission.

But Scott, I hear you say, what the hell are you talking about? So glad you asked.

Your imagination, according to the late, great, Ray Bradbury, is like any other muscle. You either use it or it atrophies and dies. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. The less, the weaker. So you, as a writer, need that particular muscle to ply your trade. Think of it in terms of a professional athlete. A pro fighter goes into a training camp for each fight. It's an intensive workout designed to make him the best he can be. But what does he do after that fight's over? Does he stop working out? Does he quit fighting completely?  Not bloody likely. No, they do light workouts. They do maintenance workouts. They keep the muscle memory fresh, keep the joints moving, keep the timing up. Why? Because they want to be ready when the next contract comes in.
Massive power poop in 3...2...1...
Just like you.

Once the big fight (your novel) is over, you want to keep that momentum going, but you don't necessarily want to climb back into he ring for the next fight (you're new novel). So you go on side missions.

A side mission is a short project. Maybe it's a short story. Maybe it's just a few paragraphs a day to keep the creative juices flowing. Maybe it's fodder for your idea folder. Side missions can be things you never see again, or things that unexpectedly blossom into full-fledged novels. The point is, they're things that keep you sharp, but don't necessarily have the emotional attachment of a full-fledged novel. They're things that are fun, because, let's face it, if you're not having fun, you're doing this thing called writing wrong. And if you never pick them up again, so what? You had fun writing them. And if they develop into something more, cool, but no pressure, right?
It's casual.
So how does one go on a side mission? First, place butt in chair. Second, place fingers on keyboard. Third, start typing. Pretty much, it's that simple. I mean, sure you want to give yourself a writing prompt. I have shelves in my writing room that are full of curios and oddities that are all story fodder. I pick one (or two or whatever) and think about a past or a future I could give that item, and just start going. That jump drive? What could be on it that would save the world? That weird brick with all the signatures? Who are they and where did it come from? The suspicious bag hanging from a braid of hair in the bell jar? Where'd it come from and what's it for? Then I start writing and just let it jump out of my fingers and brain like electronic vomit. And when I've reached my daily word-count, I get up and go enjoy the rest of my day. Just like when I write a novel.
Lookit this friggin' guy... enjoying his day...
So lets try a quick experiment, shall we? Quick... Look immediately to your right. What's the first thing you lay your eyes on? In my case, it's big metal coffee thermos (I have a problem... I know... Don't judge me). Now, take into account the two basic plot lines that any fiction follows (A person goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town) and see how you can place your object into that arena. Got the idea in your head?  Now GO!  Type for your minimum word count! And when you're done, get up, kiss your loved ones, and flex your taut imagination muscles at them like the author you are.
And the great thing about side missions are this: Y'know that genre thing that you stubbornly adhere to? Yeah, you don't have to cling to it. It's an experiment. You're trying it out. You're just giving yourself some breathing room. You tried weights instead of cardio. No big deal. You wrote sci-fi instead of horror. It's okay. You can diversify.

So yeah. Side missions. Get on it.

Until next time --


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Research: Know what you write.

In the world of writers, there's a trite, glib statement that is often shouted at us, and just as often causes feelings of murderous rage:  Write what you know. It's really meant in the best possible way, I know, but it's possibly one of the worst pieces of advice that you could give a writer. "Write what you know."  Why is that so bad? Well, let's look at that statement for a moment. What, exactly, do you know? For most young writers, what you know consists of living with your parents and teenaged angst. And if that's all you write about, where did all the amazing novels about witches and goblins and historical romance and fantasy come from?  You don't know about any of that stuff, do you? Of course not.  Not unless you have a dragon in your back yard or you actually are a serial killer.  In which case, this blog doesn't pertain to you.

I prefer a different maxim:  Know what you write.

Let's say, for example, you're writing about hard science that is based in reality. Internet, nano probes, genetic engineering, prosthesis, bionics, etc. Every one of them are favorites of writers because they evoke the sense of wonder in the reader. They are rife with potential because no one really knows how far the technology can go, and your guess is just as good as the next person's as to what the next stage of technological evolution will be.
I, for one, welcome our robot overlords...
So does that mean that you don't need to research the tech? I mean, really, if I'm writing for the next step, or even several steps, in the future, why do I need to know about the tech now? Of course, you need to research it. How will you know where it can go if you don't know where it is? But, you say, the research is boring and I don't really care about the tech so much as I do the story! Well, here's the thing... If you don't care, why should your reader?
Says the voice of God...
Look, your readers aren't stupid. Your readers are a cagey bunch. If you don't care, they can tell, and there's nothing more off-putting for a reader than to read something where the author doesn't care. And if you don't care, they won't care, and then they'll put your book down. Say it with me:  If I don't care, the reader won't care. It's a truism. And this is where research comes in. If your story features tech of any kind, you owe it to yourself and your readers to have more than a passing knowledge of that tech. I'm not saying you can't create a whole new tech for your novel, but everything follows basic rules and laws. Everything. Everything. Little things like physics and thermodynamics still apply. And, no, I'm not saying you need to have a PhD in either subject to write about them, you should still know how to write about something that obeys said laws, or at least comment on why it doesn't.

Here's where things get weird:  You owe your readers. Seriously, you do. You owe them the best possible reading experience that you can muster. Why? They're buying your work. If you betray that trust, well, they won't be buying your work anymore, will they?

So, instead of relying on your own limited experience to write something and hoping it's in any way accurate, how about doing a little research? If you're reading this, you have access to the sum total of all human knowledge. It's called "Google." You can seriously ask anything about anything and the answers will appear. Then you can read about it and appear to know what you're doing. But it doesn't stop there. You can actually contact real, live people who know about stuff. For some of these people, the things you write about are, in fact, their jobs. Like, policemen, fire-fighters, doctors, lawyers... And people really like to talk about themselves and what they do. So call them up and ask them questions. It can't do anything but help.

But wait, there's more.
Tell 'em all about it, Billy!
Primary research is such an invaluable tool, I can't stress the importance enough. Let's say for a moment that you want to write a scene in which someone shoots a gun, but you've never fired one. How do you research that? Watch movies with lots of gun play?  No way. They're full of inaccuracies and can't possibly convey what it's really like to shoot one. No, if you want to write about it with accuracy, go to a gun range and fire off a few rounds! Use different calibers. Figure out what kind of gun your character would use, and how it would feel to him.

How about this... You want to write a scene of your POV character getting kidnapped and thrown into the trunk of a car. What do you do? First off, you call your best buddy, someone you trust, who you hope doesn't have a sick sense of humor. Then you climb into the trunk of his car and have him drive around the parking lot. You think I'm kidding, but I've done this. And now I know what it feels like to be jostled around in the trunk of a car.
Seriously, I've done this. 
There are simple practical things that you can do for almost any situation, and for the few that there aren't, there are experts who can tell you about their experiences. You owe it to your readers to put in at least some effort. And, as an added bonus, you will not just write better things, you'll grow as a person. So do your research. You, and your readers, will be glad you did.

Until next time...


Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Waiting Game

I'm sitting at my desk staring at the little icon for my email.  When I get a message, it jumps up and down like an excited pug and I get the nervous butterflies in my stomach. But then, when I click on the little hyper bastard and see that the incoming message is spam, my mood sinks just a little bit more.

Welcome to my life.

Actually, it's the life of every writer, agented or not. People who don't do this make assumptions that you can send your manuscript out and, like any other piece of email you send, you'll get a reply back within twenty four hours. But that's not how it works. Don't believe me? Here... Look at this:

Blow that up and what you'll see is a listing from, which a site dedicated to folks like us who write and want to make a living at it.  Specifically, they update submission requirements every day.  See those highlighted areas? Those are listed as "RT."  That means "response time." Notice anything?  Yep.  Some of them are more than six months for a reply. Six. Months. Why? Because these people are professionals.  They are in the business of making money and publishing the very best manuscripts that they can find, which means, of course, that everyone wants their manuscript published by them. One (conservative) estimate is that editors receive about 600 queries per week. That, if my math is correct (and I'm using a calculator... Math isn't my strong suit) is more than 31,000 queries per year.  Now, if each query is, let's say, a 400 page novel, that's more than 12 MILLION pages that these people have to get through. See where I'm going with this? 

Pictured:  Agent/Editor
Sure, your book may be the greatest thing written since the invention of the QWERTY Keyboard, but the agent/editor has to get to it before she offers you gobs of money, and that means wading through all the rest. Fair or not, it's how it works. And, by the way, agents have the same type of wait, just like unagented people do.  They just get to nag when they feel it's appropriate. 

Pictured:  You.
To clarify, you've just spent four months (or more) of your life writing a novel that is the best thing that has ever been written, and now you have to wait even more? Yes. That's just how it works. Deal with it. But what, I hear you asking, am I supposed to do while I wait? Start the next novel. 
Move it, monkey. 
Okay, yes, take a break. Take a mini-vacation, if you must. But if you are like me, while you were busy hammering your last opus out, thousands of ideas hit your brain and you lamented not working on them then because you had to finish what was already in front of you. So go write them. All of them or any of them, but get back to work while your creative juices are flowing. The point is, once you send something out, there is no point in worrying about it anymore.  It's out.  It's gone. You can no longer tweak it or fix any errors. Now you just have to deal with the fact that your little baby sparrow is trying its wings out. Wherever you sent it, put a mark in your calendar for whenever the response time is, and if you've received nothing by then, send it out again. 
This is your life now.
I'm playing the waiting right now. I'm waiting on word back from my agent about the manuscript for my latest novel, Ungeheur.  I'm also waiting on a reply from another publisher for another manuscript for Bokor Island. And, last but certainly not least, I'm waiting for the yea or nay from Emerson University to see if I got into their MFA program. I hate waiting. Since I'm someone prone to stress and suffer from depression, waiting is really hard for me to do. So what else am I doing? Working on a new novel. Sewing (yes, really) a couple of new shirts. Petting my pug. Paying attention to my wife and kid. I'm trying to let all the anxiety slip away while life happens. Then, if something wonderful occurs, I'll be thrilled. But in the meantime, waiting is all I can do. 

Until next time...