Sunday, September 7, 2014

A Response to Lisa Morton's "The H Word: The Horror of Small Town America"

I’ve never met Lisa Morton but have heard of her and known about her for a while. I reckon she’s probably pretty cool just like most writers in the horror genre are. I’d probably like her.

But she’s pretty off base with some of her comments in “The H Word: The Horror of Small Town America,” a non-fiction post last year at Nightmare Magazine that just came to my attention via Facebook. She claims that small towns are dying and that small-town horror needs to be shoved aside because “(t)he world is changing, and horror needs to keep changing with it.” I agree that the world is changing, but the small town is far from dead.

The one I grew up in is still there, as are all the many that surround it in rural southern Ohio. It’s still creepy in those places after dark and even in the shadows or sunlight during the day. My own hometown has haunted houses and tours of haunted places, and most folks there still know each other’s names. They still buy from local farmers and all get their haircuts at the same shops. And these towns, my hometown, and those around it, are far from the only small towns left in America.

Yes, sadly, some of them have died out. Some. But, then again, there are vast empty areas in some major cities, a sad fact in Detroit, for example.

To point out that a lot of horror fiction is set in small towns is one thing; to make a statement like, “Maybe it’s time to drive a stake through the heart of the small town trope in horror, and scatter those ashes far and wide” is ridiculous, though. I agree with Morton that it’s great that urban horror/fantasy is gaining wide popularity, but that doesn’t mean we have to kill small-town horror within the genre, maybe because “the characters in these books are almost solely WASPs.” That may be true, but even that is changing—the small town I grew up in is more ethnically diverse than it was when I grew up there.

I’m going to keep writing small-town horror stories. And I know there are readers for it. I hope colleagues much more widely-published than I do, too. I’d name names but don’t want to start bickering between folks. You know who they are. Because they’re popular and still widely read, even by folks in that “vanishing” small-town America.

And even if small towns had disappeared or are disappearing, why drive a stake through the heart of such popular fiction within the genre? You might have some angry redneck readers. But, of course, they must not exist, either.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Stories Are Mine, and Yours Are Yours

"So what are the things you want me to change in my story," my Intro to Fiction Writing student asked today in my office.

"Nothing," I said.

"Huh?" she said.

"I don't WANT you to change anything. It's not my story."

"Don't you like it? Then why don't I have an A on it yet?"

"Because your grade on it is based upon YOUR understanding of what's not quite working craft-wise and your ability to try and work with it. There are several things I like about it, like ____, _____, and ______. But I want to see YOU thinking about it and what can make it better. I brought up ____, _____, and _____ during workshop."

"So, I need to change THOSE things?" she asked.

"Well, I'd start with the things YOU see that need work--if they're coming from my feedback, sure."

"I understand," she said, "that I need to be able to understand story structure myself, but do you know you are EXASPERATING?"

"I know," I said, "but it's YOUR story."

She laughed. "Can I grade myself?"

"That would be so much easier for me. I love helping and suggesting. I HATE grading."

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Writing UNIQUE Short Stories

Got a note that I don't post short story writing tips enough. I only have so many! :) Here's something that has been VERY appropriate for my current "Intro to Fiction Writing" class, though:

Newer writers, and intermediate writers, too . . . if you follow my suggestion for not plotting a story in advance but starting with a character, setting, and situation/object instead and then seeing where it leads you, consider this: quite often, the first/rough draft of your story might not be the right story, but it has most likely given you an interesting character before you likely resort to using a plot that seems familiar to you. The wheels-turning, trying-to-get-somewhere process is important. Creating a character who's interesting is great!

This, the rough draft, is the best draft for a workshop, or a writer's group, or initial readers (but not final clean-up readers). As is happening with my class workshops this semester, group members/readers are finding things about the character that intrigue them, and discussion revolves around that, and around the fact that the plot the authors have tried to force upon the character is forced, clich├ęd, distracting, etc.

Often, if you workshop drafts you feel are more "polished," you're more resistant to big changes that could make a decent story great, and unique (you can tell unique is an important word for me with stories).

So, since it's a first draft, authors are more open to making big changes to the story: new plot, POV, adding deleting scenes, etc. It's a great way to find discussion about how, hey, this character is unique, this plot is not, so how can this POV character lead us to a more unique experience? What does he/she want? What is impeding their progress? How can this be confronted in a less-done-to-death way?

What is this character's real story? Not the plot you resorted to--no, where have they been and where are they going? The most important thing is character. There are rarely new basic plots. It's unique characters that force us to write old plots in new ways.

And death is mostly not an ending to a story. It's a way to end a story you don't know how to end. "And after all this crazy shit, he/she died." This only works if the death means something bigger.

Just some things to think about, as always--it ain't a How-to; there's not one.

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Thoughts on Writing Goals: Aim Low

I wrote the last 700 words of a short story draft this morning (working title: "The Bells, Bells, Balls, and Rain, Dear"). I also wrote the first 4,100 words of a new story with the working title "Barn Frog." My most prolific day in a long time--I feel GREAT. 

And it reminds me of something I've maybe mentioned here before: what really works for me, or has from 2011-now, is to not set my goals TOO high. I have a busy life and other responsibilities. 

I have a basic goal of writing at least 5/7 days for at least 15-30 minutes. That's it. I always meet it, for the most part. And when I write 7 days, or write for 3 hours instead of 30 minutes like I did this morning, I feel great. Set a small goal that you can meet, and avoid the guilt that comes with not meeting it! 

That said, thanks to Jessica McHugh for the "Story a Week" challenge. I have finished drafts of 12 new stories since New year's because of it!

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Book That Influenced Me Most?

A creative writing student asked me this afternoon what book I'd read that had influenced my fiction writing the most. The answer came tumbling out, easy as you please: 

  
Waylon GD Jennings' autobiography. And it's the absolute truth. Anyone who knows me at all knows I have an obsession with Waylon; it's like some people with the Beatles (who I do not care for, at all)--I know every period of his career, can track the changes in style . . .

But how has he affected my writing? Well, I listen to him all the time, for one. Along with Johnny Cash, and the Highwaymen. And the stories within the songs are inspiration. The autobiography itself has a great voice--I can hear Waylon talking and telling his stories, though I'm sure his co-author "cleaned it up" a bit.

Mostly, though, I reckon it was/is Waylon's fuck-it-all, I'm-doing-things-my-way attitude with his music, his passion. It inspires me to attempt the same with my stories, to not cater to convention or trends or publishers and the industry, but to try and be unique, while still having respect for and a connection to those weird tales/horror writers before me, like Waylon did for Hank and Jimmie Rodgers and all.

Finally, he had his demons and God knows I've got mine. Thank the Lord for the creative outlets he provided for Waylon and provides for me. Getting things out is a good thing.

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Friday, December 13, 2013

Unplugging Story Constipation

Had a former student email me and ask for some of the suggestions I had for his class a few years back for when you've started a short story and are stuck in the middle and don't know where to go. We've all been there.

Here were my thoughts:

(1) think of where the story seems to logically be going, and DON'T DO THAT, (2) consider where readers would be happy to see it go, and DON'T DO THAT, (3) get sky-high on coffee, or good and buzzed on whiskey, and, well, DO THAT for now, (4) say, "Fuck it, this story is too hard," and DON'T DO THAT.

Here were my further, more constructive, thoughts:

Don't be afraid to write the ending that you think is too weird, too obscure, or that nobody will get. As long as it's connected to the rest of the story, it's cool. Don't underestimate your readers. You're not writing for the simplest readers, you're writing for the best readers. Here is something that has worked for me many, many times:

Write an ending that you don't understand but that looks cool image-wise and sounds like it means more than it seems. Now, connect the dots from A (beginning) to C (ending) with B: tension and action and narrative drive. How can you make this bridge?

For example, say I've started a story about an old farmer who is frustrated because his college-age son never stays around to help on summer days and always sneaks off to play tennis. I get to the middle and he's working out in the field, and I get stuck. So, I think of all the obvious stuff: son comes around and helps father more, father learns to respect that his son has other dreams, blah blah blah. Not doing those. Instead, I try to think of a powerful image. I come up with, "Farmer Krewder let his wife's words hang in the air for a moment, and then he took out his pocketknife and starting cutting the string's on Jason's tennis racket one by one. 'You're going to cut yourself,' she said. 'No,' he said. 'There's no blood here.'"

What the hell does that mean? That's what I want to find out when writing the bridge from A to C. Come to find out in this case, Farmer Krewder's wife has explained to him that his son Jason told her he is gay and cares for his tennis partner. The ending I've written seems to show that Dad is not happy or very open about this revelation. I may have to tweak the beginning and the middle some to avoid "deus ex machina" and build further tension in scenes, but the ending has meaning and is not too cliche or common, perhaps.

It's worked for me many times--writing the beginning first, the ending second, and the middle last.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Starting New Stories: a Reliable Way to Avoid the Mythical "Writer's Block"

I've had a couple of former students email me recently expressing their desire to write stories but their frustration that when they sit down, no ideas come to them. As I've said, I don't believe in writer's block--you can write something, but . . . here's an old trick I've used many times and shared with students over the years that can jumpstart your subconscious (which is where the best short story drafting comes from).

It starts today, ideally in your writer's journal (don't have one? Start one. Here's your first entry). Do this: (1) make a list of at least 10 character names (and add to it once a week or so)--make them interesting and varied: Larry "Lemon" Haggerty, Julia Rosebottom, Hines Redd, Carl "Hoggy" Smith, Lisa Jobile, Idaho Richarson, etc. (2) makes a list of 10-15 concrete nouns (add to it as you can)--again, varied: spoon, kitchen matches, lighter, helium birthday balloon, can of sausages, child's princess tiara, etc. (3) make a list of one-sentence desciptions of small, specific settings (add others when you can): backseat of a white '72 Buick Skylark with electrical tape holding the seat leather together; an overgrown flowergarden next to a carport cluttered with junk attached to Old Man Shaver's house; the back stoop of a Chinese restaurant next to a trash bin where stray dogs gather, etc.

Now, one day when you sit down and don't know what to write about, pull out these lists, choose a name, object, and place (or better yet, have someone else do it), and start writing. See where it takes you (sometimes use two names, or two objects--mix it up).

For example: "Some of the dogs barked and whined over by the trash bin, but a mangy hound crept slowly toward Julia Rosebottom with two of the saddest eyes she'd ever seen. He seemed to be looking at the sagging helium birthday balloon that floated just above her head on its string, which she'd wrapped around her pinky like a ring. Julia wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to coax the dog over to the stoop she was sitting on by scratching her fingers against the concrete."

It's rough, but it's a start. There's a character in a place with a situation. Now it's up to me (you! our subconscious) to figure out where the story goes from here.
 
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