I’m overjoyed to announce that Ross E. Lockhart has acquired my first novel, Mr. Suicide, as a July, 2015 Word Horde release. I’ve worked with several great editors during my career and Ross is no exception. His suggestions for Mr. Suicide helped me take the book to the next level. I can’t wait to share it with all of you.
Thanks to everyone who has helped me as I’ve climbed this mountain — all the readers, mentors, teachers, supporters and friends.I’m glad to join Ross, Justin Steele , J.M. McDermott, Molly Tanzer, and the rest of the Horde (can I be the one in the back with the battle ax?).
Look for more information about Mr. Suicide (and many other topics) in an extensive forthcoming interview with Sean Moreland over at Postscripts to Darkness.
This past weekend, I organized the Horror Writers Association‘s presence at ScareFest 7 in Lexington, Kentucky. Authors Kenneth Whitfield, Geoffrey Girard and L. Andrew Cooper joined me as we spread the good news about HWA and sold some books, too (with twenty percent of the book sale revenue going to the HWA hardship fund for writers in need).
It was a hectic weekend. We spoke to many newer writers about HWA and the upcoming World Horror Convention (by 1:30 p.m. on Saturday we’d exhausted our supply of HWA brochures; our WHC flyers lasted a little longer but we gave a lot of those out, too). Great networking opportunities abounded and there were some truly remarkable costumes making the rounds of the exhibit hall. It felt good to hang out at a media con, after having spent a long time focusing on publishing cons. I’ll be doing a little more of this sort of thing in the future
I’m only posting a couple of still photos here today, but more are en route. We shot some video footage at the event which will be posted here soon, too. Also, our group was interviewed (one at a time) by a podcast, and I’ll be posting links to those interviews as they become available.
Overall, an enjoyable and successful weekend.
I want to make one thing clear at the start: I know Lisa Morton. My face-to-face interactions with her have been positive, and I’ve found her to be nothing but the most polished professional when we’ve worked together on projects for the Horror Writers Association. In fact, last year around this time I defended her when some big names in the business ridiculed a blog post she’d written that I thought (and still think) was actually pretty spot-on.
But nobody’s perfect. To err is human. To err on the Internet is to be forever reminded one is human. And so now (over a year after its initial appearance), a troubling column Morton wrote for Nightmare magazine has come to the forefront of (exasperated) discussion on Brady Allen’s Facebook page.
Refer to the links above to read the article and Allen’s critique.
My own critique will focus on one central point: this article is, at best, confused (and confusing).
Morton starts off by noting the enduring prevalence of the world-weary-author-going-home-to-face-monsters-in-a-small-town trope. She says this:
Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen it pop up everywhere from small press catalogs to bestseller lists and award announcements…Upon recently perusing a long list of free Kindle horror books, that plot occupied a whopping half of the offerings…In fact, I think this storyline is second only to “group of survivors must band together to make it through the zombie apocalypse” as horror’s biggest plot champion.
So, Morton is tired of that specific trope. Well, she’ll get no argument from me on that one. I was never that fond of it to start with. This thesis seems entirely defensible. But then her discussion starts to drift, expand, generalize, get — well, there’s no other way to say it — bizarre…
Gone are the Bradbury-esque small American towns where Main Street was a collection of quaint diners and everyone knew your name. Mom and Pop stores have been replaced by Walmarts; towns have died as jobs have moved to urban centers…Anyone born in the past twenty years probably thinks that all small towns look like big cities–they all have the same gas stations and the same big box stores and the same fast food joints.
Ummm, really? That’s funny, because — as someone who lives in southern Indiana and often goes back home to visit her small town in rural Maryland– I’m a frequent patron of “quaint diners” and “Mom and Pop” places. Yes, the larger of the small towns will often have a Walmart, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have local joints, too. And there are towns out there too small for even Walmart’s reach. I’ve worked in towns in southeastern Indiana that are so small that no well-known chain restaurants or retailers existed in them. (The closest you’ll find to a chain in some of these places is an I.G.A. ; which, if you read their website, is actually a sort of anti-chain.) The other businesses (general stores, restaurants, you name it) are often eccentrically advertised with homemade signs created with spray paint and stencils.
Perhaps the strangest comment Morton makes is that “towns have died as jobs have moved to urban centers”. It’s truly mind-boggling to think anyone could write such a sweeping generalization. Morton is wrong. Exceedingly wrong. Manufacturers know that they can pay small town workers less than city workers (especially in red states unfriendly to organized labor), so they sometimes outsource manufacturing (and other) jobs to small towns. In that sense (as a destination for outsourcing), small towns are America’s internal Mexico (or, perhaps more accurately, America’s internal China). That’s not to say that small towns don’t struggle, or that manufacturing isn’t a shadow of what it used to be, but this sort of thing is happening. And there are other employers besides factories. Hospitals. Small colleges. Military bases. Power plants.
And Morton doubles-down with this gem:
A lot of younger Americans–the readers who grew up on Harry Potter and who are hungry for something new now that they’ve reached adulthood–probably know the classic image of small town America only from a trip to Disneyland’s Main Street.
Morton now sounds like she’s pitching the plot for a dystopia: small towns (and only small towns) have lost the ability to reproduce. There are no children in these towns. Surely, no cub scout or girl scout troops. No little league teams. You think you see kids going to buy candy and sodas on the main drag? Better go to a shrink because you’re hallucinating!
But maybe Morton knows something I don’t know. I mean, sure I’ve lived the vast majority of my life in small towns. But maybe she has some vital insight or overlooked statistic that overcomes my merely anecdotal experience.
Oops. She doesn’t.
….many of us, including me…were born and raised in cities. My experience of small towns is pretty much confined to movies like Blue Velvet, which paint them as places so seething with violence and perversity that I have to wonder why anyone would wax nostalgic for them.
I once saw L.A. Confidential, Lisa. But I don’t feel that viewing experience equips me to make sweeping generalizations about L.A. as a whole.
Morton then goes on to make what sounds, superficially, like a valid point about the lack of fully-realized people of color in King-style small town stories.
Thirdly, the characters in these books are almost solely WASPs. Now granted, the typical small town wasn’t known for a wide distribution of different ethnicities…but a new generation of readers have grown up with names like Gutierrez and Nguyen and Obama, and it’s time to start recognizing them in the pages of horror fiction.
First, note the past tense (“wasn’t”) applied to small towns. Morton’s still operating under the assumption that they’re “dead”. Next note the ignorance (sorry, can’t call it anything else) on display. Increasingly, people of color live in small towns, too, Lisa. In my own corner of Indiana, the area has become more multicultural largely as a result of immigration. The reasonable living expenses of small towns are helpful to many immigrants (although, granted, racism is still a problem). Of course, racism is a problem for all of the United States, not just small towns. Just ask the L.A.P.D.
Yes, there are people of color in fly over country. And LGBT people, too. And Muslim people and atheists and pagans and…
Well, you get the point.
But no, seriously, Lisa. There are. No foolin’.
Morton concludes with this:
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. The world is changing, and horror needs to keep changing with it.
Sheesh…is she saying what I think she’s saying? Again, if Morton is suggesting the King-style writer-returning-home-to-a-small-town trope get staked, then I’ll be the first in line to do the staking. But her thesis has drifted (and wildly expanded) over the course of this short essay. It is, apparently, not just the King trope, but the small town setting itself which is unwelcome. For Morton, small town horror = King and Bradbury (or King and Bradbury pastiches). She seems to be entering this conversation with complete ignorance of the work of a genre heavyweight like seven-time Bram Stoker Award® winner Gary Braunbeck (whose take on small town Midwestern life, at its best, achieves a beautiful bitterness that neither King nor Bradbury would dare explore, given their optimism). She doesn’t appear to be familiar with other writers of small town horror with devoted followings (like the late Richard Laymon or Brian Keene). She doesn’t appear to be familiar with the anxieties of small town life scattered throughout the work of Shirley Jackson. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what newer rural authors bring to the table — sometimes setting surrealistic stories in small town settings. And, on the basis of that limited perspective, she’s essentially asking for the silencing of rural voices. She’s asking that stories not be told, simply on the basis of their zip code.
But horror doesn’t need fewer voices than it has. It needs more. All sorts of voices. Rural authors, small town authors, city authors, suburban authors; authors of every color and ethnicity; of every religion and no religion. Authors from all over the gender spectrum. Authors of all sexual orientations. Authors of every economic class and authors with disabilities.
To paraphrase Eddie Poe, terror is not of the city. It’s of the soul. It’s of all souls. No exceptions. I think (or, at least, hope) that, in her heart, Lisa Morton knows this. But her keyboard generated something that makes it seem like she doesn’t.
This morning I worked some more on the class I’ll be teaching Sunday afternoon at Context 27 (a speculative fiction con in Columbus, Ohio, coming up in about a month). I’ll be providing specific tools for the so-called discovery writer (aka, the fly by the seat of your pants writer, aka, pantser, aka she or he who does not do a plot outline before starting a project.).
Preparing to teach this class is turning out to be a lot of fun, as it has provided an opportunity for my ideas on the topic — which have been percolating for a few years now — to coalesce into a meaningful whole. Unless my memory fails me, everything I’ve written has been pantsed rather than plot outlined. So I’ve had a lot of ups and downs with this way of going about things, and look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.
As I put my class materials together I’ll be posting one or two brief excerpts here on this blog. You know, free samples. Teasers. Here’s a piece I worked on this morning. Take a gander at it by clicking on the linky-link : Discovery writing workshop PDF
And, for more information about the workshop at Context 27, check out this link.
Things have been crazy busy, and I honestly don’t have time for a full blog entry, so here are some brief highlights of the last few weeks.
ReaderCon was a blast. I had a chance to meet so many interesting folks in the weird fiction scene (if I list everyone, I’ll be here forever…and I’ll forget someone. But, yeah, a lot of folks). My novella Children of No One didn’t win the Shirley Jackson Award, but I enjoyed attending the ceremony. Also, as a finalist for the award I was gifted the lovely, polished skipping stone pictured to the left. Shirley Jackson…stone…get it? (If you’re like the vast majority of my friends back home, you don’t. But the crowd reading this blog is no doubt more refined).
Anyway, congratulations to all of the winners (especially Veronica Schanoes, whose novella Burning Girls won and Joe Pulver, who won in the anthology category for The Grimscribe’s Puppets).
In other news, I’m hopeful to have at least one new project to announce in the near future. I can’t say much more than that and I’m almost afraid of jinxing it by even saying this much. But I’m quite enthusiastic about the possibility of this working out. Things are looking good.
And, last (but not least), this morning I enjoyed a brief Twitter discussion with Hugh Howey on his unbridled enthusiasm for Amazon. I’m not anti-Amazon, but think Hugh’s enthusiasm could use some bridling. Hugh (not surprisingly) disagrees.
Amazon isn’t the Evil Empire, but it isn’t the messiah either. The truth is always more complicated than a bumper sticker. It’s best to be a critical consumer of corporate press releases. The Amazon vs. Hachette debate needs nuance and moderation (such as that offered by John Scalzi and Walter Jon Williams), not cheer leading and talking points. If you want to see the blow-by-blow Twitter recap, check it out on Storify.
And with that, I’m off. Stay hip, cats!
As I write this, I am about 36 hours away from departing for Boston (and, specifically, ReaderCon). Having spent the early part of this week polishing a novella, I am ridiculously behind schedule. I have not packed any bags. The convention has not really been on my mind. But it’s coming up.
I last attended this convention in 2011 and — if the blog I wrote afterwards is a reliable indicator — really enjoyed myself back then.
Some things have changed since those days. This time, I come to the convention as a nominee for the Shirley Jackson Award (for my novella, Children of No One). The ceremony will be held on Sunday morning.
I’m allowing myself to be hopeful of winning the award, but that’s not where I’m trying to focus my energy. I’m trying to steer my energy in the direction of gratitude. Gratitude for being nominated alongside a legend in the field like Ramsey Campbell. Gratitude for being nominated alongside several other talented writers, too. Gratitude for having my work embraced this way. I may lose the award (most nominees do, eh?), but I hope to win the experience. I hope to just savor being a nominee.
And who knows, I may win. I hope I do. I’ll obviously be disappointed if I don’t.
But I won’t be crushed. I’ll be having too much fun to be crushed if I lose.
But who knows, I may win.
(Repeat this line of reasoning over and over, about a gazillion times, and you have a window to my thought process about the whole thing).
In addition to being neurotically serene about the Shirley Jackson Awards, I’m also looking forward to seeing colleagues like Mike Griffin and Justin Steele (as well as my fellow-Codexians…who look as though they’re going to be well-represented at the con).
Alas, I must run. So, there you have it.
I thought I’d share a little bit about this topic, since it seems to be in the genre news these days. Not passing this down as gospel truth for anyone else. Just sharing what works for me (in case anyone else is interested). So, without further ado, here goes…
Step 1. I read it again and ask myself: “Is it really that negative?”
As human beings (and writers) we tend to pay more attention to negative criticism than to praise. (At least I do. I suspect I’m not alone). There have been times when I’ve gotten reviews that were 2/3 positive and only 1/3 negative. And yet where does my attention usually focus? The 1/3 negative. It’s human nature.
But just because it’s human nature doesn’t mean I have to yield to the impulse. I can fight it. Sometimes, I’m able to talk with my hubbie and (especially since he’s not in the publishing biz) he’s able to offer a more balanced perspective. Sometimes I take a day or two away from Goodreads or Amazon or Facebook or blogs or wherever else the review occurred. The best medicine, of all, for a negative review is to simply get back to work on the next project.
Anyway, the overall theme for step one? I put the negative review in perspective and remember that — no matter how well I think I’ve written something — I’m not entitled to a chorus of unanimous praise.
Step 2. I read it again and ask myself: “Is there anything this review can teach me about how to improve my game?
Don’t get me wrong, I take plenty of reviews with a grain of salt. But I read them all and I think I can learn something from each and every one. (Sometimes what I learn is that my fiction just isn’t likely to appeal to certain kinds of readers. If your favorite author is Dean Koontz or Brandon Sanderson, for example, you’re unlikely to dig my stuff. Fair enough.)
But sometimes reviewers offer more substantial criticisms. Sometimes these criticisms have led me to change my approach. Not often. Rarely, in fact. But it happens.
Sometimes, it’s okay to admit to yourself (and maybe only yourself) that the reviewer’s right. Maybe not even right about everything. Maybe just right about something.
Step 3. I congratulate myself. Getting a negative review means my work is being read outside my immediate circle of well-wishers. It’s a sign of a growing readership.
I first heard this idea from urban fantasy author Mur Lafferty on her podcast I Should Be Writing. (Recommended listening, by the way. You don’t have to be an urban fantasy writer to get something out of her show). It’s an idea I’ve come, over time, to embrace.
The greater the number of readers, the more varied the responses will be. Compare and contrast two different scenarios.
Scenario #1: If I read a story to a group of twenty friends, most of them are going to say they like it. They’re my friends. We share a common frame of reference. We think alike. They might be writers, too. Supporting each other might be part of an essential esprit de corps that keeps us all going in the midst of an extremely difficult career path. Negative criticism may be seen as a betrayal of that espirt de corps.
There may be a temptation to buy into a notion that all of us are magnificent writers. (You can see this in a lot of small, face-to-face critique groups.) One of us is the next Hemingway, another the next Fitzgerald. Why, our social circle is just like the expats in Paris!
It’s a phenomenon that can be particularly seductive in small press communities devoted to niche genres and subgenres. There’s a temptation to let out a chant of: “I’m great, / you’re great. / Isn’t it great / we’re all great!” The good thing about chants is that they can bring a group together like perhaps nothing else can (as any NFL stadium can show you, in the fourth quarter). The bad thing about chants is that they don’t leave a whole lot of room for nuance.
Scenario #2: If, on the other hand, I read a story to an auditorium of 1,000 people, then maybe only seven hundred are going to really love it (if I’m lucky). Two hundred may feel “meh” about it. One hundred may absolutely loathe it.
They’re not my friends. They may not share the same frame of reference at all. They may not get that what I was doing in chapter one was a reference to Bruno Schulz (they’ve never heard of him, perhaps). They wonder why my book isn’t more like The Hunger Games. Or they wonder why my book isn’t more like Henry James. The critiques may be coming from various different directions, but the common thread is: they don’t like it. Some may even be crass in their statements of why they don’t like it. Because they don’t know me, they treat me in the same way they would treat a public figure. (Because — surprise! — all of a sudden I am one). I’m fair game. They may say things that are hurtful. Sarcastic.
Now, which scenario do I want? If I’m in this only for ego-stroking, I’ll choose scenario #1 every time. (And, with the emergence of fan fiction, hobbyist presses, micro presses and the like, there are more and more opportunities for writers to encounter scenario #1 — and only scenario #1. )
And, if that’s honestly all I want, then I’m going to focus my efforts in the direction of ensuring outcomes like scenario #1.
But if I’m in this to grow my readership and/or make a dent on my field, then that’s going to mean at least occasionally facing scenario #2. That means I’m going to have to grow thick skin (if I don’t already have it). Everyone’s heard this before, but it bears repeating: bad reviews are part of the business. If I tend to become extremely frustrated or sad each time I see a negative review, then I may want to focus my energy on toughening up. If I find, over time, that I can’t toughen up then I may want to choose another business.
Step 4. I never, ever publicly lash out against the reviewer. *
*Okay, there was the one time I kinda/sorta made fun of an Amazon reviewer who seemed to say she felt Children of No One was based on real-life events (she said she knew it but “didn’t have proof”). But even that wasn’t so much of a lashing out as a bewildered “WTF?” And at least it was a three-star review, and not a one or two-star one. :)
But, that incident aside, I don’t criticize critics.
Because if I do, there’s a chance that someone is going to see it as a simple case of sour grapes. Maybe 99% of people are going to see it as justified. But I suspect 1% won’t. And I never know who that 1% might be. It could be an editor. It could be an agent. It could be a reader. It could be a colleague. If I lash out, I have to accept that someone out there will lose at least a smidgen of respect for me. If I was well-established in the field, I might be willing to take that risk. But I’m pretty new. So I’ll pass on the revenge, thanks.
Step 5. I don’t talk about / link to / the negative review.
My work has mostly been well-reviewed, but I’ve gotten my share of negative reviews as well. But I’ll never talk about them. If people want to find them, they can. Why should I put a spotlight on them? When I ignore them, they lose their power over me.
So, to sum it up…
For me, negative reviews are like bee stings. Sure, they hurt like a motherfucker for a few minutes. But then the pain fades and I move on. And, damn, there’s a lot of freedom in that.
Just my two cents. Your mileage may vary.
Gigi Bannister has long been active in the independent horror film scene (for her own work — mostly behind the scenes — as well as for being the wife of Phantasm actor and friendliest-guy-in-film Reggie Bannister). I met both of them many, many years ago (ten? twelve?) at one of the early Horrorfind conventions in Baltimore. I haven’t kept up a correspondence with them, but retain a memory of both Reggie and Gigi as down to earth folks and pleasant to hang around.
I was saddened to see the news that Gigi’s daughter, Autumn, has been missing since January. To raise awareness of the search efforts, Gigi is producing a documentary called Autumn Leaves. Here’s a link to where you can find out more about this project and how you can help. Please join me in donating to this worthwhile cause.
I’ve talked about this extensively on Facebook and Twitter, but have yet to share this with blog readers: my novella Children of No One has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. This is my first award nomination ever, and I’m thrilled and honored that the jury found a little book set in Nowhere, Indiana worthy of inclusion in such a strong short list. Congratulations to all nominees, especially my DarkFuse colleague Brian Hodge and the legendary Ramsey Campbell (both fellow-nominees in the novella category), as well as Joe Pulver (nominated for editing The Grimscribe’s Puppets, in which I have a tiny story) and Livia Llewellyn (nominated in the short story category, for her Grimscribe’s Puppets story “Furnace”).
I’m grateful for the extra attention the nomination has granted my work. It’s a relief to get such high profile recognition, after spending so long honing my craft in isolation and true obscurity out here in the Midwest, far from the both the NYC publishing scene and the nurturing milieu of a MFA program. An award nomination helps establish that I actually belong in this gig. I
knew suspected that all along, of course. But a nomination like this lends some bona fides.
It also occurs to me that the nomination, in and of itself, is the sort of accolade that will end up in my Locus obituary someday (if I end up with a Locus obituary someday…Is it morbid to think about that? Surely, I’m not the only one who thinks about such things).
At the same time, I’m trying to approach this (as I do all career ups and downs) with equanimity. I have a staggering amount of work in front of me (on many fronts), and so I find it healthy to just focus on the tasks at hand (which I have control over) rather than ruminating about the awards (which I have zero control over). But it merits a blog post, at least. So there it is.
The other important thing I should mention is that I recently returned from attending the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon. I saw many, many people there. Friends, old and new (perhaps the biggest highlight, for me, was finally meeting W.H. Pugmire). I only wish I’d thought to have someone take a picture of us together.
I participated in several business meetings, and am cautiously optimistic about all of them. I read my story “A Catechism for Aspiring Amnesiacs” to a small audience that included S.T. Joshi. I had one of my first experiences of someone I’d never met looking at my name tag and asking: “Hey, didn’t you write that story…the one about the maze?” I met Vincent Price’s daughter, Victoria, and chatted with her for a pleasant five or ten minutes. Overall, I had a blast. I wasn’t crazy about Portland. It’s not a good fit for me, as far as cities go. Far too frilly and obsessed with cutesy irony. Portland is a warning to the rest of America: this is what happens when the hipsters win.
But, annoyance at the host city aside, it was actually a positive business trip. I’m leaning strongly toward attending next year’s gig, in Atlanta.
And so this is where I bid you all au revoir. I’d love to sit here and blog in greater depth. But the day job is calling. Suffice to say, things are going very well — for now. And I’m doing my best to enjoy the modest success while simultaneously keeping my nose firmly planted to the grindstone.
Things have been crazy-hectic around these parts (a state of affairs that was, unfortunately, worsened by a recent bout with bronchitis). But antibiotics have saved the day, once again. (Yay, science!) So, now I’m back to having my nose firmly pressed to the grindstone.
Unfortunately, it’s a different sort of grindstone than I’d prefer to have my nose against: the whole business grindstone. I’m reviewing a contract for a new short story collection and preparing to send out a handful of hardcover editions of I Am the New God to my beta readers, one of my mentors, and the one reader who actually managed to score a copy from my personal stash. That means I have to truck over to a store, buy shipping materials, go to the post office, etc. I’m busy doing writing stuff, but it’s not…well…writing.
Next week, I’ll attend the World Horror Convention in Portland, Oregon. This is a business trip, but not one without a fair bit of pleasure built into the experience, too. Looking forward to seeing old friends and making new ones, as always. I’m very much looking forward to meeting W.H. Pugmire in person. (After a few years of correspondence and enjoying his videos on Youtube.) Also, I love air travel and I haven’t flown in awhile. I love airports, even. I love the sense of all of these busy people on a gazillion different errands, all in one place for a brief period of time — comprising a temporary community of sorts. I love all the shops in airports, and the way they try to give you a superficial sense of the city in which they’re located. It’s what I’d imagine a 19th century sea port would be like — a sort of busy bazaar.
Last year Lucy Snyder and I drove down to New Orleans for WHC. The year before that, I drove to WorldCon up in Chicago. Hell, I think the last time I boarded a plane was in 2011, when I made it out to ReaderCon. So, yes, I’m looking forward to dwelling among the clouds, once again — at least for four or five hours.
If you’re at WHC, you may want to know that I have a reading slot. (Friday, 2:30 p.m., in the Hawthorne room). Stop by. Say hi.
I’ll also be participating in the mass autograph signing event.
Lookin’ forward to it.
Now, back to the grindstone.