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Interview with Shannon Lawrence, author of Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations

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Welcome to fellow author Shannon Lawrence!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, Jason Dias, and MJ Bell are also available.

1. This collection is made up of short, creepy horror tales, not necessarily splatterpunk but not broodingly gothic, either. What made you decide to write in this particular vein of horror?  It feels both adventurous in the classic pulp adventure sense, and very thick with detail and observation that lead inevitably to creepiness and suspense.

It was never really a decision. These were the stories coming to me, and I wrote them in whatever way spoke to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I started really experimenting with different types of horror, including some quieter horror. However, I do love the classic, blue collar sort of horror, and that’s probably always what I’ll write the most naturally. My first influence in horror was Stephen King, and I feel he’s telling blue collar tales, too. I like straight forward, hopefully identifiable characters, doing normal things that prove to be a mistake in the end. Life is unpredictable, and I hope I reflect that to an extent.

 

2. This collection contains the locally infamous Blue Sludge Blues story that I heard you read part of at an event. Please briefly describe the setup for the story…and the reactions you received at the event.  (I know, I’ve heard the story behind the story before, but it’s a good one and I want you to share it anyway because heee hee hee!)

That was the most fun I’ve had reading a story! When I set out to write Blue Sludge Blues, it was meant to be an experiment in visceral horror. I asked people what words grossed them out or gave them an automatic negative feeling. And then I wrote about one of the most disgusting, uncomfortable places a person can go: a rest stop port-a-potty.

The story features a man moving across the country. He stops at a rest stop, where something waits for him, deep in the blue sludge of the chemical toilet. Something with tentacles. A quick bathroom break becomes a fight for his life.

When I read it at an open mic night, I wanted to see how people would respond. It wasn’t quite finished yet, but the gross details were there already. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought I might offend someone. Instead, there were groans, exclamations, and laughs at all the right places, and it was impossible to read it with a straight face as people sounded off around the room. They were grossed out and horrified, as I’d intended, and it remains my most requested short story.

 

3. How do you decide what kind of ending you end the stories with–from happy to tragic? It sounds like it’s a process, with some endings on some stories garnering some pretty harsh rejections.  What was the worst reaction you’ve ever received, and did you decide it was all about the person rejecting the story, about the ending being wrong for the story, or something of both?

I hate to say it for this answer, too, but I don’t plan most endings. I’m a complete pantser, sometimes not knowing where I’m going until I’m in the thick of it. I’ve been told I tend to write circular stories, with the ending doing a bit of a callback to something in the beginning, so I’d say the endings are instinctual. I had no idea I was doing that until someone pointed it out. Admittedly, I lean toward more tragic endings or the false happy ending. Likely because those are the types of endings I grew up reading and watching in horror films.

I haven’t had anyone ask for a new ending, but I’ve had issues with details within the story. The one I had the most issues with was for a story called Cravings, about a pregnant couple dealing with some disturbing cravings. Originally, the couple had a dog. At one point, the husband came home to find his pregnant wife gnawing on the dog’s neck. It lived. My first rejection came from an editor who said I should have gone all the way and killed the dog, and he was disappointed I hadn’t done so. I went ahead and changed it to see what would happen. Sure enough, personal rejections came in because I’d harmed a dog (and to be clear, I was not submitting to markets that blatantly forbade harm to animals in their guidelines). They weren’t nasty (in fact, they were complimentary of my writing style), and they said they liked the idea of the story, but they wouldn’t publish it because the dog died. Or, as one woman said, she couldn’t handle “the slow, awful death of the dog.” (It was intentionally not slow and awful—I don’t do animal torture—but it obviously bothered her). I stubbornly went on submitting the two versions of the story to various publications, and it netted me the most personal rejections I’ve ever gotten on one story. They liked the idea and the writing, but that dog (poor Jauncy) was trouble, no matter which direction I went.

Ultimately, I removed the dog entirely and rewrote the story to actually be slightly more extreme on the one hand and more discreet on the other. No harm to an animal was directly depicted.  I was deeply frustrated, and couldn’t decide between the two courses of action, so I figured out a third instead.

I definitely felt it came down to personal preferences for the different editors, not so much this detail being wrong for the story. My critique group was sad to learn I’d changed the story to remove the dog. I’d gotten exactly the reactions from them that I’d intended when they read the original piece, but sometimes it’s best to let it go. With such mixed reactions from editors, the readers were going to have equally mixed reactions.

 

4. You, M.B. Partlow, and I have been reading through several lists of horror novels over the last few years (it feels weird to say that, but it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it?). Who do you feel that you’ve discovered through those lists that you most relate to, as a writer?  Not necessarily the book you enjoyed the most, although feel free to mention that.  What techniques have you stolen or borrowed?  What have you simply said a big fat “nope” to?

It has been a few years, hasn’t it? That’s hard to process.

The story that struck me the most (so far) was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It gave me a new understanding of horror. I was already familiar with monsters, both human and animal, but this book has varying levels of human monster, and the big ones, the ones that put this dystopian landscape into play, are never seen. We only see the results of their actions. Other than that, they’re faceless. It’s astoundingly well done.

Other than that, I learned a LOT about what makes up horror. In the beginning, there were books I’d read and I had no idea why they’d been classified as horror. But I’d think about it, tear my ideas apart, and eventually expanded my definition of horror. All horror authors should have an epiphany like that one. As it is, I still have people argue with me about The Handmaid’s Tale being horror. People also have trouble understanding that a story can be horror-plus. As in, it can be horror and science fiction. We don’t have to pick one genre. The film Aliens can be both horror and science fiction. In fact, it can be horror, science fiction, military sci-fi, and action/adventure. It can be all those things without diminishing it or changing its meaning to any one person.

Overall, the entire project helped me become bolder and more experimental with my writing. I’m more willing to play because of what I’ve experienced in the books on the list. For the most part, I’ve also stopped saying, “That wasn’t horror,” instead immersing myself in it and picking it apart until I can see why someone else might have defined it as horror.

One of the skills it’s made me work to hone is holding back. Sometimes I rush forward, so excited to get to the big freaky thing. It’s more effective not to do that, and it takes finesse.

My big nope? The nonsensical, bizarro, political weirdness of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Too abstract for me.

 

5. Where do you think you’ll go from here with your writing? I know a lot of short story writers end up writing novels, often because it pays more (at least, in theory).  If you were able to make a living at short stories, would you stick with those, or still work your way into novels?

I was actually working on novels first, and I do have a few in the works, but I enjoy my time with short stories so much more that I rarely work on the novels. There’s a roller coaster high-low addiction to short story writing, submitting, and publishing. Instead of one or two novel releases a year, I have a bunch of releases, and the excitement involved in them. Sometimes I’ve got multiple releases at once! Plus, there’s a kinship with the people sharing the tables of contents with me at times, as well as the editors. It’s a fantastic community, and one that’s growing.

Novels move at glacial speeds. Short stories are rapid and exciting. I’ve been published with big names that I’d never share space with in writing any other way.

In short? I’d love to also have novels published, though not for the money so much as the fact that some of my story ideas simply turn out to need a novel’s length to tell, and they want out as much as the short stories do. Well, almost as much. I don’t see myself ever giving up short stories. I’m making the same amount monthly from my collection of short stories that friends with one novel out are making. It’s not a lot…for either of us (bearing in mind I’m speaking only of self-published friends with a single novel out), but we’re running parallel in terms of royalties. And in addition to that one book, I sell short stories throughout the year, which is a meager additional income they’re not bringing in.

I’m also playing around with short memoir/creative non-fiction and working on a craft book on short stories, so we’ll see where that takes me.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on? (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

Writing short stories has led me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of the same benefits and opportunities as novelists, such as being picked up to speak at conferences, be a panelist at conventions, do standalone workshops, participate in book signings, etc. Short stories have a natural ebb and flow, like many other aspects of writing, but right now they’re flowing. It’s a great time to try your hand at short stories to see how you do. Short fiction is selling especially well in the speculative fiction realm, so give it a go!

And those opportunities I mentioned? I’ve got a piece coming out September 4 in an anthology with some of the most amazing, up-and-coming women in horror. I’m incredibly excited about it, and there are already rumblings of an award nomination for the book, as well as a review in Publisher’s Weekly. If nothing else, it’s made a stir. Most of the stories are reprints (including mine), but there are also new stories written for the anthology. That book is Fright Into Flight, put out by Word Horde, edited by Amber Fallon.

And I’m in an anthology of novellas and novellettes, due to be released September 15. The Society of Misfit Stories, Volume II can be found here.

A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, including Space and Time Magazine and Dark Moon Digest, and her short story collection Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations is now available. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.

What Am I Selling, When I Sell a Story

I’ve been working a lot on studying marketing lately.  Not just indie book marketing, but the principles behind selling stuff.

When I started out as a writer, I thought writing was mostly about putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on the page, and then some magic would happen, and people would like what I wrote and want to pay for it.

Like many things in life, if you want the magic to happen, you have to make it yourself.  And when you do, the magic turns out to be completely mundane.  I eventually figured out that the magic, in this case, was selling things.  The connection between making something and have people want to buy it is…selling things.

Duh.

A lot of people seem to grasp this instinctively; I didn’t.  Here’s what I’ve been reading to study up:

  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert Bly.  If you read one book on the subject, do this one.
  • Kickass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, by Susan Gunelius.  Pretty good, another approach on much of the same material.  For people who need more structure.
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman.  This is more of a “why” than a “what” book for freelancers.  Very good.
  • Six Figure Author, by Chris Fox (and related titles).  Translates Bly into action steps specific to indie writers.

And some other books that I abandoned after they made my eyes roll.
Two things stuck out to me:

  1. I had no idea what I was selling.
  2. I had no idea why anybody would buy it.

Erk.

I had come a long way from the standard indie writer approach to marketing and promotion, which is basically, “I have a new book out, if you are so inclined, please buy it,” which I tend to refer to as the buy my crap approach.

Telling people to buy your book without telling them why they want it is poor salesmanship, and can’t possibly do your book justice.

But I (and it seems most writers) didn’t actually know why anyone would want my books, or books in general.  What do books do for people?  And how do you demonstrate that your book does that in general, and specifically that one thing that the reader wants from your book and no other?

(This is called a “unique selling proposition,” by the way; you have to identify it before you can do anything else.)

I had to back up.

Why do people read books?

  • To be entertained in the way that they specifically find entertaining.
  • To escape from their lives.
  • To process the problems in their lives in a safe way.
  • To empathize with other people, to become them for a little while.
  • To totally geek out over something.

Why do people read my books?

  • To escape from the normal world, but not necessarily too far.
  • To feel like they’re part of an intelligent, insightful conversation.
  • To see something they’ve already seen, but with a fresh perspective (often ironic).
  • To see something they haven’t already seen or cannot see, as if it were real.
  • Alice in Wonderland geeks (yay!).

There’s something that gets discussed in the process of selling stuff, features versus benefits.  The features are the things about your book that make it what it is.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a book about Alice in Wonderland; it has zombies.

The benefits of the book are what the reader gets out of it.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a dryly ironic book that sets you right in the middle of a Victorian Oxford class war and provides insight into Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her family, and even Queen Victoria.  The story is a darkly true coming of age story, where Alice doesn’t so much come into her own as get bullied into taking her place as an upper-class daughter.  Sometimes there is no happy ending, because people are jerks, and it’s nice to have that dragged out into the open rather than, once again, prettied up for the family photo album.

The difference between features and benefits is emotion.  Features are about stuff that exists; benefits are about how the audience feels about it.  The magic is in the feels.

I’m still struggling with how this works, and until I’m a millionaire I probably won’t feel like an expert on the subject, but I have reached the point where I can see other writers screwing this up.

Nobody wants to know the plot of your story, per se, before they read it.

People want to know how you’re going to make them feel.

When someone writes a story, they are writing an experience for the reader.  Everything else builds toward making the reader feel something in particular.  When I write, I am selling experiences.  What people want to buy, when they buy a book, is a particular experience.

Selling uses the features of the book to focus the reader’s attention on the experience they’ll have.  “You’ll have a great time reading this book!” is not a convincing argument.  Why?  What if I’m not the right reader for the book?  How will I know?  So you do have to use the features somewhat. They just aren’t the focus.

“If you like Alice in Wonderland and zombies, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Pretty much true.

“If you like dark historical fiction with a horror bent, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Also true.  Genre is a way of identifying clusters of experiences in books.

I’m still not to the point where I can pull an effective book description out of my butt, but I’m getting closer.  I’m also finding that it affects my writing; I’m thinking more about what readers will experience as they read.  This is a real pain in the ass at the moment.  I’m thinking waaaay too hard about it as I write (and it’s me saying that).  But I feel like I’m getting closer to what readers actually want.

What do readers want?  They want a good time, the time you get from visiting old cemeteries and wondering whether that statue covered in moss and stains is an angel or some kind of fallen demonic entity.

Or something like that 🙂

I don’t just send out Wonderland Press updates via my newsletter, but articles like this one.  More of the same here.

The Art of Lockpicking

On June 23, I went to an introductory lockpicking class, The Art of Lockpicking, hosted by Atlas Obscura and taught by Jeremiah Jensen.

It was held at the Lighthouse Writers’ Race Street location, which I’d never been to before.  It’s a charming location aswamp in parking issues, so I was late getting there.  Fortunately, although most of the people there were not writers, it was still like herding cats, and they didn’t start without me. (Whew!)  I want to say there were about sixty people, but that’s just a guesstimate.

Each of us received a lockpicking kit, a pen case big enough to hold the lockpicks (sneaky), and a clear practice lock, so you can see all the little pieces inside the lock.  And a piece of fine-grit sandpaper.  More on that in a bit.

The class started with a lot of rustling, scraping, and cursing as people tried to figure out how to use their lockpicking sets unaided.  Some of the people were actually able to open their locks!  I found out later that some lockpicking enthusiasts had attended, though, so I suspect that a) they were able to open their very easy practice locks, and b) they were teaching other people as they went.

As for myself, I resisted the urge.  I was late, it was time for the class to start, and if I started working on the lock I would either break something or not be able to pay attention to what was going on until I got it figured out.  Counterproductive.

Eventually we started.  The teacher was a tall man with a beard, tattoos, and a swirl of green hair on top of his head, named Jeremiah Jensen.  He had got his start with a practice set in high school that he never used–or, rather, he had dug out the practice set once he had started working at the lock station at Home Depot.

Here are the ethics of lockpicking, somewhat paraphrased:

  • Never open a lock without express owner permission.  It’s easy to break a lock.  HEY IT’S EASY TO BREAK A LOCK MAYBE DON’T DO YOUR FRONT DOOR ‘KAY?
  • Never help people who want to use your lockpicking skills in a criminal manner.
  • Be mindful of laws about lockpicking equipment.  It’s legal to have it in Colorado, but that’s not always the case.

Locksport is the art of lockpicking as a competitive sport.  The r/lockpicking subreddit is an excellent resource, including its own wiki.  (As with all things reddit, Read The F@#$%^& Manual before asking questions.)  Masterlocks are cheap and a good place to start, although you may be disappointed with how easily it is defeated.

The most famed year in lockpicking history was 1851.

It was London, and the Great Exhibition had just started up.  A sophisticated, unpickable lock had been created by Jeremiah Chubb.  Not only was it a damnably hard lock to pick, but if one nudged it just a bit too hard, the tumblers would jam in place.  A second key was required to unjam the lock, turning it the opposite direction as the key that would unlock the lock.  (This second key wouldn’t unlock the lock, just unjam the tumblers.)

An American gentleman named A.C. Hobbs picked this lock in about 25 minutes…as a warmup to a second lock, the famed Joseph Bramah safety lock, which had proved unpickable for about 60 years.

Hobbs picked it in 14 days, at the Great Exhibition.

Every lock since then has been crafted in the knowledge that cannot provide perfect security.

There’s always something.  (Here’s a link to an article about Hobbs’s challenge.)

We were then given a tour of the lockpicking set.  There were several tension bars, basically thin, l-shaped sheets of metal sturdy enough to turn the machinery inside the lock, but delicate enough to help transmit the vibrations inside the lock, to aid in sensing where everything is when you’re not working on a clear plastic lock.

Inside that clear plastic lock is a plug, or the turney bit where the key rests.  Resting inside the plug in the most inconvenient way possible are several pins held in place by small springs.  The pins are in two parts, with half of the pin above the plug, and half of the pin inside the plug.  If the pins are lined up exactly with all pins half above and half inside the plug, then the plug can be turned.

A key lines those pins up in their proper and convenient location.  With a little luck, a lockpicker can line the pins up manually.  The pins aren’t perfect, see, so you can nudge them into place one at a time, and, if you’re putting the most delicate amount of pressure on the tension bar, they’ll kind of stick in place.

The actual lockpicks come in several flavors.  Every lock (even two locks of the same brand and model) has its own personality; likewise, every lockpicker has their own personality.  So there is no “perfect lockpick,” only the right lockpick for that lock at that time, used by that person.

Our lockpick sets came with “hooks,” which looked as described, in which one pin at a time could be nudged in place.  They also came with “rakes,” which look like tiny key sections with triangle-shaped teeth that can be raked across the pins so that more than one pin nudges into place at a time.  There were some other tools, too, like a tiny set of tweezers for repairing and resetting pins after you’ve pulled a lock completely apart, and a fish-hook-shaped one that was for digging out busted pieces of key or lockpick.

“All right,” the teacher said.  “Now let’s work on opening our locks.”

Step 1: Insert the tension bar into the practice lock.  The plug in a pin lock turns clockwise only!  I’m left-handed, so this caused me issues at first, since the way I was holding it gave a counter-clockwise turn.  Delicately insert the short piece of the tension bar into the keyhole.  Turn it clockwise (lockwise?).  Gently.  GENTLY.  You will almost certainly turn it too hard at first.

Step 2.  Insert one of the rakes, preferably one with two or three top triangles. If you feel resistance to doing so, it’s because you’re turning the tension bar too damn hard.  What did I just tell you?  Don’t turn it so hard!

Step 3.  Move the rake back and forth so you can see the pins moving around in the practice lock.

  • If the pins aren’t moving at all, then you’re not touching the pins with the rake.
  • If the pins rise and fall, you are turning the tension bar the wrong way.
  • If the pins rise but do not fall, great!
  • If the pins rise so that you can see both pins, they’re up too far.  Release the tension bar and go “damn it!” as the pins drop back down.  You have to be patient about this.  Do not become so annoyed by this that you put too much tension on the tension bar.  Tension is not the answer here.
  • What did I tell you about that tension bar?!?
  • When the space between the two pins lines up with the plug on all the pins, victory!  You should feel the lock kind of give in your hand.  Increase the tension on the tension bar (finally), and the plug should turn inside the lock.
  • Congratulations!  You just spent like 45 minutes opening your first lock!
  • Now do it again!
  • Optional:  If your pick is sticking on the pins, you can give the pick a bit of a rub with the old sandpaper to smooth the points out juuuust a smidge.

Seriously, once I had the clockwise thing figured out, it only took about ten minutes.  (Your mileage may vary.)  But I wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a practice lock and magically all better it in ten seconds.  There’s a real “feel” to it that you can’t know before you know it, which is annoying to try to explain.  (When I came home that night, I tried to explain it to Lee and Ray and failed miserably.) It takes time and intelligent trial and error.

The set we had was fairly cheap; a good site for quality premade lockpicks is Sparrow.  You can make your own tension bars from the metal strip on a windshield wiper and probably should.  You can also cut your own lockpicks using a template and a Dremel.

Some other notes:

  • Zipping is a lockpicking technique where you use a diamond (one point) rake by sticking it all the way in and pulling it out in a steady motion across the pins.
  • Rocking is a lockpicking technique where you use a city rake (it looks like a toothy skyline) to gently rock against the pins until the magic happens.
  • Single pin picking is where you use a hook to nudge one pin at a time, for more fussy locks, such as ones that have a…
  • A security pin, which is a pin specially build to jam into place if you screw around with it too much, causing you to have to constantly start over.  There are other tricks to annoy you on more sophisticated locks as well.
  • If it’s not a pin lock with one side of uneven teeth on the key, then it’s probably either harder or impossible to pick with a standard lockpicking set, and you’ll need more tools.  See the r/lockpicking subreddit.
  • The Victorian type locks are lever locks, and require different tools and techniques.
  • You can get a lot of vintage and uncommon locks at ReStore (locally, the Highlands Ranch one is especially good).
  • Check YouTube for helpful videos.
  • Hacker conventions almost always have a locksport alley, because people who love security…love all types of security.
  • Your new recommended reading list is A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh, and The Complete Book of Locks and Locksmithing by Bill Phillips.

I didn’t have any spare locks to practice on until Saturday this week, when I picked some up at a flea market.  I have yet to dig into them with the lockpicking set–my first non-clear locks–so I don’t exactly feel like a “real” lockpicker yet.  And it really makes me want to find out how to pick Victorian locks of the cheaper sort, the lever locks.  But I haven’t dug into that yet, either.

I feel somewhat changed overall, though.  Knowing that I can learn how to pick a lock quickly (well…) makes me realize that there are a ton of people out there who a) can do this, and b) will just break down or pry open doors and windows.  It’s happened to me before; someone broke into our house in 2015 as we were moving.  A prybar to the door with the real estate agent’s lockbox on it, and they instantly achieved free rent + everything we still had in the shed in the back.

Security is an illusion.  “Locks are to keep honest people honest,” as Mr. Jensen kept saying.

True.  It feels weird to be on the other side of that equation now, though.

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I Survived Denver Comic-Con, and All I Got Was This…

I survived Denver Comic-Con, and all I got was a stupid Nakitomi Plaza Parking Permit!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actually, I got a few other things, but none of them cost more than a dollar.  Or were eaten before I left for home.

Friday:

I was on a panel for Indie Book Publishing with Marla Bell, Lisa Manifold, and Michaela Mills.  We could have talked about marketing for hours.  One of the things Lisa said stuck with me:  “Find your tribe.”

Yeah,  yeah, right right, says me, I’ve found it.  Then she said, “For your genre.”

D’oh!  I’m in several indie publishing groups, but nothing for indie sf/f, horror, or mystery.

Hmmm…sounds like it’s time to do some research.

Then came Letters Written From Hell, a pleasant sort of panel about what makes horror writers tick.  I moderated that one, and was sure to establish that horror writers weren’t nuts…or at least handled their issues better than the average bear.  That panel starred Shannon Lawrence, Jason Dias, Emily Godhand, and Patrick Hester.

We established that horror writers may be slightly weighted toward people raised Catholic (3 of 5 panelists), and that in a hypothetical novel written by all five of us, the audience greatly preferred to have Shannon as the psychotic antihero, and darling Emily Godhand writing the bad guy.  Apparently, readers like plot twists.  Who knew?  And also Patrick’s space spiders…

Friday’s panels were wrapped up with Favorite Horror Tropes, moderated by Melissa Sauer Locy, and also starring Veronica R. Calisto, Emily Godhand, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Okay.  I’m gonna admit that I mostly blanked this one out.  There were soooo many people and my brain was kind of on static by that point.  I remember talking about child abuse and The Babadook.  That’s about it.

Friday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rincewind and Twoflower from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series.  I first spotted Rincewind from behind, circled around to check that it was a “wizzard” hat, slyly pulled out my phone, and said, “May I take a picture?”

“If you wait a moment, you can get Twoflower, too.”

!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure if these are particular furries or just furries in general.  But the girl was 100% delighted to get a selfie with them.  I couldn’t help but smile.

Saturday:

The first panel of the day was Creating Believable MonstersMatt Bille moderated.  He has a love of scientifically valid monsters that I just can’t equal.  The important thing to me is that the characters believe the monsters they face, not that the monsters could really exist.  But we discussed that ahead of time, and Matt handled the disagreements gracefully.  Also on the panel were Fleur Bradley, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and Shannon Lawrence.

Looking at my notes (I always bring paper to these things, because someone always makes a book recommendation that I regret not writing down), Xenomorphs are underlined twice and the word aliens has an exclamation point and a box around it, which cracks me up.

My favorite monsters were:

  • Hannibal
  • The Tunnbaq from The Terror
  • Zombies

Shannon Lawrence pointed out that all my monsters were either cannibals or were known to have eaten people, and that I should probably figure out why that was.  (I had mentioned earlier that my short story collection A Murder of Crows: Seventeen Tales of Monsters & the Macabre is full of cannibalism.)  But I already know the answer.  I’m a foodie; everything wonderful is delicious and everything terrible is rotten.  My stories always have someone vomiting in them, because that is the worst.

Then came Not Just Novels: Writing Different Lengths, where we talked a lot about short stories and the mysterious Novella and Novellette lengths, where nobody’s quite sure what they’re trying to accomplish (even writers).  The panel was moderated by Shannon Lawrence, and included Fleur Bradley, Jason Dias, Stace Johnson, and Carolyn Kemp, who was wearing a wonderful gothy steampunk costume that made me realize I wouldn’t recognize her to see her again.*  I become easily confused when people change their hairstyles, and I can rarely recognize people from their Facebook photos if they’ve done their hair differently.  At all.

Which is kind of ironic because I don’t keep my hair the same.  I have a bob, but it needs help; right now it looks like generic Mom Hair, so I have it pulled back in a ponytail.

*I looked her up online in her civvies.  I think I got it.

Saturday photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

This gentleman seemed to be completely unaware of the possibility of this young and very hungry dino baby turning around and eating his face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mad Moxxi and Handsome Jack from the Borderlands series.  I reeeeaaaallly wanted them to do the voices, but they couldn’t do them.

“Hey, sugar…”

Other Saturday Stuff:

I met Paul Roman Martinez, who is doing a cover for an anthology that Jamie Ferguson and I are putting together–more news on that soon 🙂

I helped distract a baby on a changing table.  MOM powers took over.  He was like “Imma roll off this table,” and his mom was like “Oh no you won’t.”  So I stood there and distracted him while costumed characters walked behind us.  Which makes me more interesting then Harley Quinn, at least according to one six-month-old kid.

I stopped for lunch at a retro diner called Sam’s No. 3, where I sat at the bar with two people who spotted my badge and wanted to know if I was from that comic-book thing.  I told them that it was a farm & home show for nerds.  “What about all those costumes?” “It’s really just like supporting your favorite sports team.  Just for fun.”  I feel like I fought the good fight for nerdery, but did not win any wars.

Sunday:

I only had one panel on Sunday, the Black Mirror and the Evils of Technology Panel, which I moderated.  I assumed it was at 5:30 in room 405, because of course I did.  It was at 4:30 in room 605, which I checked at about 2:30, because I’ve lived with myself long enough to have learned to double-check things.

Now, I like the show, even though it also makes me miserable, but I only started watching it recently; my husband Lee told me that I’d hate it (based on the first episode).  But I had volunteered to moderate panels, damn it, and there I was, moderating a panel that was now no longer on the 400 (writer) track, but on the 600 (general fandom) track.

Which meant that almost everything I had prepared was no good.

Fortunately, my panelists were excellent.  They were Shannon Lawrence, Veronica R. Calisto, Stace Johnson, and David R. Slayton.  They adjusted on the fly in front of what looked like several hundred people.

Erk…but it was the best of the panels I was on, in my opinion, because everyone there was so filled with energy and delight–over a rather horrific show.

Sunday Photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Local signage.  This might be my new motto.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Delirium, from Sandman.  It was too crowded to catch her shoes, which didn’t match.

Other Stuff:

You may have noticed that a lot of the panelists were the same–that’s because Shannon Lawrence did all the organizing to set this up, which turned out to be a lot more organization than she expected. Kudos to her.

Going into Denver Comic-Con this time, I carried the attitude that the con was just going to make me miserable, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it again.  I had a great time, though, and feel like I learned quite a bit by observing people and what they loved, from their costumes to what they carried around with them.  I may write something up about that later.  But now I feel like I’d like to do this again, if I have the opportunity.  And I recommend going if you have the chance.

The Tale of a Book that Failed…


…or that at least didn’t succeed as hoped.

Once upon a time, I wrote a book for a ghostwriting client.  It was one of those dream projects that paid pretty well and that I had a lot of freedom on.  The only requirement was that it have some kind of sci-fi element to it.

The client and I went back and forth on what the book would be like.  I told him I wanted to write something cyberpunk-ish about an element of technology that had gone horribly wrong.  But not so much a gadget or a gizmo that had gone wrong…how about a drug? He loved the idea, and we went forward with designing the tale of a detective investigating an empathy drug gone wrong.  The drug ends up causing permanent and debilitating brain damage to the users–it makes them so empathic that they have trouble defending themselves from bad people–which a serial killer with a strangely apt sense of empathy (but no mercy) takes advantage of.

The Giver was born.

The client loved the book.

And then, somewhere in the middle of writing book 2 in the series, his business died.

Normally, I take this kind of thing in stride.  However, I had put a lot of myself into this book.  I’m the kind of person that gets targeted by life’s little sociopaths–or at least I was.  (I decided, not coincidentally, near the end of 2016 that it was time to stop suffering fools gladly.)  So when I heard this book would never see the light of day, well, I was disappointed, to put it mildly.

And broke, because suddenly I’d just lost my job working on book 2.

The client gave me a choice:

Take back the rights on book 1, etc., and write off all the money he owed me, or…get paid.

I took back the rights and decided to make something of what I’d written.

Here was my thought:

  • The book was designed to be published under a male pen name.
  • The POV character is male.
  • There were some sexist things I left in the text because I believed that the character would see the world that way, and I didn’t want my (female) name to be a distraction because of that.
  • And I’ve always wondered:  would it be easier to make sales under a male pen name?  I’ve heard that trying to publish romances under a male pen name is excessively hard*; maybe trying to publish cyberpunk under a female name would be similarly so.

Dean Kenyon was born.

The book came together, and I still liked it, so I published it May 7th and set it up for five free days on Amazon to start with, hoping to generate a review or two.  I sent it out to this list, crossing my fingers.

The giveaway went great.  I had previously run two similar giveaways for books under my me-name (DeAnna Knippling) and a middle-grade pen name (De Kenyon).  Neither one made half of the numbers of the Dean Kenyon giveaway.

And then…crickets.

I’ve advertised this book as much as I do my bestseller, but…I can barely get any views.  There are no reviews on this book!  I can’t get anywhere with it.

So, a month later, I’m just going to conclude that I can’t get the answers I want about the male vs. female pen names without reviews to help assure readers that the book isn’t complete crap.

I have to swallow my pride.

I wrote this book I really love.  It’s quite the adventure, a lot of fun in my opinion.  But I need help getting reviews out.
I’m going to hit up everyone I know and ask them if they’d like a copy.  And I’m going to try to wrassle up some reviews.

You are, of course, under no obligation to read the book.  You are even under less obligation to like it.  And, seriously, no hard feelings if you don’t review it.  (Although I will note that if you review it and hate it, it still helps me out, as strange as that might seem.)

But if you know someone who might be interested, I’ve got a free copy for them.  Just send them my way, at

publisher [at] wonderlandpress [dot] com

And I’ll send them a review copy.  Or send them to the Instastafreebie link.

Thank you, and wish me luck 🙂

*Except for the redoubtable M.L. Buchman, who uses his initials.

The link to the free Instafreebie copy (multiple formats) is here.  You can buy a copy here, but it’s only Amazon so far.

Mindsight:  Company Justice #1

No idea is so good it can’t go bad.

Frank Mallory is a private detective working for a new type of detective agency: a well-organized one. Private Eyes, Inc., has the latest in data analysis, training techniques, cross-discipline integration, illicit back-door deals, and cynical programmers who don’t care what they have to do as long as they don’t lose their benefits.  PEI has it all covered.

The right mix of idealism and plausible deniability can work wonders.

But that doesn’t mean that Frank’s in the clear when he starts work on a case involving the new designer drug Mindsight.  Mindsight is a miracle drug.  It won’t give you telepathy, but it comes close, triggering a wave of pure empathy that helps treat everything from domestic violence to schizophrenia.

The problem is, if you take too much of it, you’ll understand someone else’s point of view…all the way to death.

Of course a serial killer starts butchering Mindsight addicts.  As if nobody could see that coming.  All he has to do is ask nicely.  And maybe offer a little something the victim can’t refuse.

The real twist is when one of his victims fights back…and takes down a cop, saying that he admitted to being the serial killer before he died.

Frank’s hired to find solid, incontestable proof that the man, someone he used to work with, is actually the murderer, so a rich man’s daughter, the purported victim, can walk free.

Seems straightforward, right?

Right.

Book 1 in the Company Justice series, starring Frank Mallory.

(Some violence, not much gore or strong language.  Some unpleasant empathy moments.)

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

Look.  You just want one perfect pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Reminder re: Failure

I don’t have much time this week to blog (a deadline is a week earlier than I thought it was!!!), but I’ll get back to the study series as soon as I can.

 

Failure is life’s way of telling you that you need to change.  Not necessarily that you need to completely dump all of your life’s plans and start all over again.  Maybe something small.

Maybe it’s just “stop being so damned impatient, keep getting better at what you’re doing, and just wait.”

We all have to scrape ourselves out of despair sometimes.  This week was mine 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?

No!

I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

Looking for more writing advice?  Why not sign up for my newsletter?

Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

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