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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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Short Story Month: Post 2 (3 More Stories)

I got a little backed up on mentioning short stories for Short Story Month, so let me dump three on you:

(1) I just reread Stephen King's "The Woman in the Room" from his first collection Night Shift. It's a heartbreaking story, only scary in the sense of the reality of decisions we have to make with family sometimes. Nothing supernatural, yet terrifying.

(2) "The Smile on Happy Chang's Face" by Tom Perotta is probably the BEST OVERALL story I've ever read--I finished it for maybe the dozenth time. I does it all and flawlessly: dynamic plot, strong characterization, gut-wrenching theme, atmosphere that sets the tone . . . Centered around parents and kids at Little League baseball, you need know nothing about baseball--you just have to have been a child and/or a parent trying to find your way to appreciate this tale.

(3) "Pin" by Robert McCammon, from Blue World. Read it and be ready to be on edge. This is a defining story about insanity, like "The Yellow Wallpaper," or maybe it's just a story about a man trying to push a pin into his eyeball, hahaha. Either way, it's unforgettable.


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Friday, May 2, 2014

Short Story Month: Post 1--"A Rose for Emily"

For the second year in a row (last year on my private Facebook page), I'm going to celebrate (National? It doesn't seem to be) Short Story Month, as probably proclaimed by a lowly short story writer like myself. Every few days, I'll briefly discuss a memorable short story here and on my Facebook author page. Today, because I found a bunch of Faulkner books at Half Price Books, it's "A Rose for Emily." I assume many of you have read it, so will not summarize and explain. Read it, if you haven't--or, hell, there's Cliff's Notes or whatever.

The narrator makes this story work. It's technically a first-person plural narrator ("we"), but it's an outside observer narrator, which I refer to as a gossip or voyeur in my classes: there's one narrator speaking for a whole town . . . and in this case, that person observes from a distance Emily and Homer's lives. The narrator is full of speculation and is therefore able to build sympathy for Emily during the course of the story, in five parts. She's the one we're concerned for. And that makes Faulkner's ending that much more powerful when we intuit the murder, necrophilia, and receive all that good stuff like the "profound and fleshless grin," the indentation on the pillow, and the "strand of iron-gray hair." This is a horrific story, a sad one, told by a master who recognized the importance of point of view when storytelling.

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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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