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.

Think Like a Librarian: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

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.

The Vegetarian is a short novel set in contemporary Korea.  Yeong-hye is a housewife who, after a terrible dream, decides to become a vegetarian.  Because her role is so restrictive and other people’s understanding of her humanity so limited by her circumstances, her decision–seemingly so minor–comes to have horrific effects.

Because this is a story about one’s point of view being invalidated, the story is told from other characters’ points of view, in three novelettes.  The first is from her husband’s point of view; he is incredulous that she will not eat meat, and even more incredulous that she won’t start eating meat because he told her to.

The second is from her brother-in-law’s point of view as he turns her into a kind of living art object, only caring about whether she will model for his video art or not.

The third is from her sister’s point of view, as she struggles to decide whether to treat her sister as a person with a will of her own or as an inconvenient bit of living meat after everything else has been stripped for her.

The Vegetarian is one of the world’s perfect book club books; it’s short and easily readable, and it’s almost guaranteed to provoke interesting discussions.  Are the events of the book fully realistic, or do they have any sort of supernatural implication?  Is the book a fairy tale or not?  How should the people closest to Yeong-hye have reacted?  Who was at fault?  Readers’ emotional reactions will also vary greatly; I found the book very Kafkaesque and ironically funny at times (as I do with Kafka).  Other readers have said they found the book tragic and moving.

I recommend this book for adults and older teens; there is no strong language, but shocking situations, including graphic sex and violence, abound.  Readers who are interested in modern-day fairy tales will also find this of great interest; the story reads like a retelling of an old fairy tale that one hasn’t happened to have read yet.  The book should also be of interest to readers who enjoy weird fiction such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.  I read this in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much.

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

How to Study Fiction, Part 11: Scenes, Part 3. Beginnings.

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 🙂

Beginnings.

This is my weakness, really.  I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been.  My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”

I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word.  They let words sink in.  They ponder.

Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting.  Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.

So:

I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings.  Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people).  And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite.  Overkill abounds.

For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:

  • When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
  • Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.

What the readers need to know:

  • Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
  • What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
  • What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.

I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot.  Often.  As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book.  Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).

At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover.  Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.

Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.

  • There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
  • There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
  • There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
  • There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
  • Whoah!  The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story.  “Is this a kissing book?”
  • The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
  • But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
  • Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.

All of this stuff is the beginning.  We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.

However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning.  The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:

  • The princess is abducted.
  • Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
  • The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
  • The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
  • The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change.  The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
  • The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
  • Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
  • The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
  • Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.

Now we’re at the main action of the main action.  Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).

The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink.  The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.  Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.

But wait!  There’s more beginning.

  • Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
  • He throws the man in black a rope.  He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
  • They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.

Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.

However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.

  • They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff.  (Beginning.)
  • Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
  • They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
  • The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo smiles.  (Ending.)
  • Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex.  (Beinning.)
  • The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
  • The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them.  (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
  • The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)

This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own).  This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.

The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:

  • Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
  • The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
  • Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
  • The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
  • Inigo goes after his sword.
  • The man in black throws away his sword.
  • Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
  • They begin fighting again.
  • The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.

What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections.  Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time.  In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts.  The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.

We need to know:

  • Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight.  Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall?  Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
  • The “rules” of the fight.  Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley.  First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense.   Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless:  this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
  • What the characters are like.  We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point).  We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo).  We learn that they are both masters.  (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)

Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense.  The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley.  His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup.  We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.

When you’re studying a scene:

  • Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
  • At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character.  That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning.  But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
  • Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description.  They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
  • Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).

As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene.  They’re all over the freaking place!    But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive.  Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time.  A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious.  It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

And that’s your goal, as a writer.

Next time, we cover the middles…

Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world.  Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.

 

 

How to Come Up With Story Ideas

Something that you have to do as an author is come up with story ideas: on time, on certain subjects, about 80% as expected and 20% new and fresh, and to fit with the rest of your work.

Difficult.

But what’s even more difficult are the requirements left unsaid:

  • The idea has to generate a story that is neither longer nor shorter than the intended length of the work.
  • You have to have a personal connection to the idea.
  • The idea has to be translatable into a story with a strong setting, characters, and action that extend beyond the idea itself.
  • The idea can’t be something that the logical readers for that story will hate.

If you generate enough bad story ideas, you will eventually just generate a story idea that meets the expectations.  If you write enough stories, you’ll eventually write a story of the correct length and quality, too.  There are techniques to help make all this more efficient, of course, so you don’t have to write a million words just to get a 3,000-word short story down on paper.  But random ideas and a lot of writing will, eventually, do.

The trick actually seems to be in finding a personal connection with any given story idea.

I’ve written stories that fit all the requirements but seem like someone else wrote them when they were done.  Or I’ll get a quarter of the way through a story and come to a dead stop.  This isn’t my story, someone else tell the damned thing.

I thought for a long time that you had to search desperately for story ideas that “connected” with your soul, or something.  Is this “my” idea?

However, finding a connection to a story is a process like any other:  what about this story idea is like my life? what about this story idea do I feel passionately about? have I had strong dreams that are like this idea?

You just have to feel a connection to your story.  Doesn’t matter what it is. You don’t even have to know what it is.  If you don’t feel it, nose around until you feel something.  Or ditch the idea and find one that you feel more strongly about.

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas, what they are, or that you feel good about a story as you write it.  Just that you feel something about it.

That’s what makes you finish a story.  And, when tempered by craft, that’s what makes it worth reading.

Anthology story that you’re stuck on?  Feel something.  Trying to decide whether to write to market or not write to market? Feel something.  Stuck in the middle of a passion project that’s gone dry? Feel something.

Have an opinion and emotions about the content of your story.

Have your own personal point of view.

I wrote this as a reminder to myself as I’m sitting down to write a story for an anthology and am stuck on it.  Mutter mutter… Anyway, please sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet.  You get a free story, and in every issue there’s a terrible pun, some random book recommendations, updates on what I’m working on (ghostwritten and personal), and an article or short piece of writing that you get ahead of everyone else.  I think next month’s is going to be a poem about a hilarious bird call I heard out on Chatfield Reservoir. Click here to sign up.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 2

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 🙂

This time, we’re going to talk about basic scene structure.

Very nearly every professional-level scene that you read has a basic structure in Western fiction.  There will be some exceptions (especially when it comes to highly literary or experimental books), but…this is mostly just it.

  • The beginning sets up the scene.
  • The middle shows the main character of the scene trying to do something, and the results thereof.
  • The ending sets up another scene.

Like many great big truths in writing, it’s pretty prosaic (which literally means to be “like prose”).  The wonders and delights and inventiveness of the most creative books are mainly based on those three elements.  Over and over and over again.

The main exception is at the end of the book, in which the ending of the scene does not set up anything else, but gives the reader a kiss-off, or feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of the book.  Some people call this a validation.

I’ve been working with some authors who struggle to grasp how straightforward and dull the crafting of scenes is (it’s the content of the scenes that is exciting, not how they’re put together).  It’s like they can’t believe that this is literally all there is to it; these are often writers who don’t type things in and are still captured by the illusions that writing creates.

In our memories, books are endlessly inventive.  In practice, they really, really aren’t.  Human brains are, for most people, fundamentally the same, and are affected by the same techniques.  We are so used to overlooking these techniques that we forget they’re being used on us.  It’s like watching commercials on TV. You don’t actually notice that there’s an audience in mind or that the commercial is identifying benefits of using that product or service for that audience.  You might notice something clever about the ad, but you’re completely missing the point that there’s a specific group of people being sold to, or that the information in the commercial is presented in such a way as to make sense to that audience.

The structure of a scene is there to make readers’ brains do something specific.

  • Explain why the reader should care about what’s happening in the scene.
  • Increase the tension in the scene/story.
  • Move the reader to the next scene.

That’s it.  At the end of the book, you stop moving the reader forward and instead give them a sense of satisfaction.  That sense of satisfaction is the biggest advertisement for your next book (not a cliffhanger for the next book in the series!).

The beginning of the scene should contain all the information the reader needs to know in order to care about what’s happening.  No more, no less, no surprises.  Don’t withhold clues from the reader; they are part of what sets up the sense of satisfaction at the end of the book!  Hide the clues instead–bury them in other information.

The middle of the scene should contain the main character (who may or may not be the point of view character, as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where Watson is the POV narrator) trying to take the next step to resolve whatever is going on in the story.  As a general trend, whatever the main character does has to make things worse somehow, either by failing or by succeeding in a way that triggers something bad to happen. This is how you increase tension.

The end of the scene should set up the reader for the next scene.  Generally, this means wrapping up the current “try” that the main character is attempting and letting us know the fallout, or promising to tell us later.  Foreshadowing for the next scene is hinted at, new information is revealed, and dramatic escalations of danger (cliffhangers!) are introduced.

It’s like one of those flip books where there are sixteen heads, sixteen chests, and sixteen tails:  pick the ones you like and make an “original” scene!

I’ll go into beginnings, middles, and endings in more detail next. But here are some signs that you’re missing on scene structure:

  • “This is an interesting scene but I’m not sure what it’s about.”
  • “This scene is full of infodumps.”
  • “I think I’m missing some pages.”
  • “Cool story, but I had a hard time getting into it.”
  • “You have to read the first five chapters before you can decide whether you really like the story.”
  • “I liked the beginning but the middle got boring.”
  • “OH MAN THE END PISSED ME OFF.”

Some of these issues refer more to the overall structure of the story, but you have to grasp scene structure in order to understand the reasoning behind overall structure issues.

When I first started studying structure, I felt offended that writing was nothing  more than a “craft” in which predictable pieces were glued together in certain predictable patterns–it felt like there was very little art involved.  But every art has a phase like this, I think, where one studies one’s materials and how they’re put together, so that it’s easier to take flights of fancy and to follow one’s intuition.

You won’t always be so self-conscious about scene structure, I promise.

Next time, I’ll talk more about beginnings.  What information needs to be in your beginnings?  What do you do if you tend to sprinkle that information throughout your scene instead of putting it in the front?  How do you keep the beginning of a scene from turning into an infodump?

Until next time…

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Interview with M.J. Bell, author of Next Time I See You

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Welcome to fellow author M.J. Bell, also author of The Chronicles of the Secret Prince trilogy.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, and Jason Dias are also available.

1. I know you worked hard on making the time travel as accurate as possible.  Can you tell me (well, the blog readers really, since you’ve already told me) which theory of time travel you picked, why you picked it?

I wanted to write a time travel story for as long as I can remember. But I wanted it to be scientific, not magical, and that was a problem since a normal person, like my main character, Kat, had no way of getting access to a rocket ship to fly close to a black hole or fly at the speed of light, or access to a wormhole or cosmic strings—the only ways time travel is possible, according to the top physicists of the world. And though I could have just made something up, I don’t have a scientific brain and I knew readers are savvy and I didn’t want to disappoint them with some lame excuse of a time machine. But I kept researching, hoping to find a way, and a couple years ago, I found it—an article about a college professor back East who had developed a hypothesis that stated that light could bend the space time continuum into a loop in which a person could then travel forward in time. At that time, he was also in the process of building a real time machine. The minute I read that, I dropped the story I was working on and immediately started writing Next Time I See You. It didn’t really matter if the professor got his time machine to work or not (and as far as I know, to date he still hasn’t), his hypothesis was a solid, scientific base for me to use, and after doing extensive research on quantum physics and talking the subject over with several physicists, Kat’s time machine was born, and I have no doubt that someday the professor will get it to work!

2. Your character goes back in time to assassinate the mass shooter who killed her boyfriend (he wasn’t her fiancé) .  Would you have tried to do what your character did, in a similar situation?  What do you feel like drove her to even try, where so many people would have just gone, “Not possible!”

That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure I can give a definite answer to! While losing a loved one would be horrific, and losing them in a mass shooting would triple that horror, I don’t know that I would have the guts to go through a time machine and face a killer. But I could see myself hiring someone else to do it for me! Haha…

And I don’t know that my character, Kat, would have gone through with it either if she had been able to process her grief in a normal way and been in her right mind. But she wasn’t. She went to a very dark place after the shooting and the dementors had swooped in, circling overhead and sucking her life out. At the point she discovered the time machine, she had lost just about everything and didn’t feel like she had anything left to lose.

3. All right, what other time travel books/movies/shows do you actually like?  Or do they all just drive you nuts?

Well, who doesn’t love the Back to the Future movies? I also enjoyed the first three Outlander books and the TV series, but not so much because of the time travel aspect—because of the history and Gabaldon’s writing. But to be truthful, a lot of time travel books and shows drive me nuts! I can’t help but pick out the inconsistencies, and it always drives me crazy when a person from our time goes back hundreds of years and is able to fit right in. I think that’s why I always wanted to write a time travel. I was going to make my character have a hard time and fumble everything, because realistically, I think that’s how it would happen. A person from this time, who is used to technology and all the conveniences we have today, would not have a clue as to how to deal without. But then, as it turned out, Kat only went back in time sixteen months, so she didn’t have to deal with a different time period. Although, there were still plenty of hurdles for her to get over!

4. As you know, I got waaaay too involved with the main character and was very upset that she was being put through the wringer in the beginning of the book.  How did you add so much tension?

I’m sorry I put you through that, but I wanted readers to be inside Kat’s head, and as I mentioned earlier, that wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But it made for great tension and that was necessary to the story. I also wanted readers to understand she wasn’t a bad person. She was just very broken and with good reason. And she needed to be backed into a corner and desperate enough to make the decision to kill the POS. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been any story to tell!

5. What are you planning for your next project?  As in, how do you follow a book like this?!?

Ha! One of my favorite TED talks is by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She starts out talking about how after the success of that book, people would come up to her, pat her on the arm, and look at her with sympathy and say, “Wow, how are you ever going to top that?” I’m not anyway close to being on Gilbert’s level, but I kind of feel the same way – what am I going to do now to top this! I loved Kat’s story and it is hard to move away from it, but I still have that urban fantasy that I put aside to write Next Time I See You. I’m getting back to it, researching facts and logistics and I’m sure in another month or so, I’ll be completely involved with it. The title of it will be Three.

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.)

The experience Kat had in meeting the blue-eyed stranger (a.k.a Blue-eyes) was actually taken from a personal experience. It was long, LONG ago, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. A friend and I were taking our daughters to their first concert, and due to the size of the event, we had to park quite a distance from the stadium. Fortunately, they had shuttles set up to transport us. When we got on the shuttle, all seats were taken and we had to stand in the center aisle. I turned and looked behind me and straight into the most mesmerizing blue eyes I have ever seen. I have never to this day seen eyes that color, and just like Kat, I instantly felt queasy and started shaking all over. It was the most intense déjà vu experience I’ve ever had. My friend and no one else around me seemed to be affected the same way I was, but I swear, I could have sat and stared into those eyes for the rest the night. All I did, though, was throw a few glances his way, as many as I felt I could get away with, because he was a stranger and I didn’t want to be caught staring. The shuttle ride was way too short and before I knew it, we were off the bus and going our separate ways. Those eyes have haunted me ever since and I’ve always regretted not knowing his story, and never thought I would find it out. But then he appeared again in this book, and Kat, being a lot braver than I, was able to uncover the answer for both of us. It’s there in Next Time I See You, if any of you are interested in knowing it too!

M.J. Bell is an award-winning author (Gold in the Mom’s Choice Awards) of the Teen/YA Fantasy trilogy, Chronicles of the Secret Prince, and the science/fantasy, Next Time I See You.

Having escaped the mosquito-infested land of Iowa where she grew up, and the scorpion-infested land of Arizona where she was transplanted for way too long, she now lives happily ever after in Colorado, spreading magic wherever she can as a full-time writer, full-time babysitter, full-time cheerleader, full-time cook/housekeeper, and full-time taxi cab driver.

 

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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Interview with Jason Dias, author of Life on Mars

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Welcome to fellow author Jason Dias, author of Sanguine Vengeance, The Worst of Us, Endpoint of Sentience, and more.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. Adams, and Megan Rutter are also available.

1. Your book starts out with a character, Jaye, who feels she isn’t human because she was, among other things, born on Mars.  What made you head that direction for this book?  Did you related to her experiences personally, or do they reflect what you’re seeing out in the world?

I’m alienated in a lot of ways. We didn’t have autism when I was a kid; I found out about it quite recently. In the 70s I wasn’t autistic, I was just weird. That weirdness alienated me. It didn’t help to be bi-national – British and American. When we lived over there, I was too American for Brits; over here, I was always too British for Americans. So because of a) weird and b) nationality, I was always friends with the outcast groups and otherwise an outsider.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I was allowed to join the grown-up table of life. And, as a psychologist, there is finally value in the outsider perspective. I get to make the implicit explicit in ways that are socially valuable.

Jaye is an attempt to integrate the past life as outsider into the present life as a real boy. Writing her not only describes but creates some of my experience. I wouldn’t say doing this work was fun; I cried the whole time I wrote this book. Both times – I wrote it twice! But the experience was too valuable not to share.

2. I noticed that you did a lot of hard science fiction in this book–a fair amount of research and math.  What were a couple of the more interesting topics that you had to research?

The old adage for writers is to “write what you know.” I tend to ascribe to that philosophy, but also make it a point to know a lot of stuff. I remember being an unconsciously know-it-all ten-year-old boy aggravating my mother. She said, “You know something about everything, don’t you?” And it wasn’t until decades later I figured out that wasn’t a compliment.

I did very little specific research for this book. I read a few news articles to bring myself up to date on Mars; our planetary knowledge always grows. But I worked in Space Command in the 90s, so I already came equipped with some basic knowledge of orbital mechanics, rocketry, space travel and so on. I worked twenty years in developmental disabilities and have a doctorate in psychology as well as my personal experiences of difference. I’m personally concerned about climate change and interested in intelligence real and artificial. Someone else might have had to do significant reading and integration to write this story but it by and large came naturally to me because I write what I know, but I know a lot of stuff.

Remember Friday, the Robert Heinlein character? God, that story was hardly a feminist epic, but some of it resonated with me as a young man. At one point, the super-assassin and sometime space traveler, Friday, gets assigned a desk. It’s a research desk; her job is an early form of “ask me anything.” Customers ask questions, she dives data to find answers. Her boss wants her to naturally learn a big underlying principle of her fictional universe, arriving at her own conclusions by knowing a bunch of diverse topics. This has accidentally been my life, from being a librarian to a space systems operator to food service and retail, developmental disabilities, psychiatry and psychology.

3.  For what it’s worth, do you feel that it’s reasonable to put humans on Mars?  Do you think we “should,” whether it’s reasonable or not?  Where should we head with our space program, in your opinion?

The barriers to life on Mars are significant. Even the soil is toxic. No amount of terraforming can create an atmosphere because there isn’t enough gravity or a molten metal core to create a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. Not impossible, but a huge challenge with a lot of one-way tickets involved.

The question wouldn’t be so much could we or even should we as why would you want to?

Lately, I see interest in Martian colonies as the desire for an escape hatch. And stories about such colonies are very popular at this moment in history. The thing is, it isn’t a viable escape hatch by any realistic measure, and thinking of it in those terms distracts from very real Earthly problems: climate change, environmental degradation (especially affecting ocean life), geopolitics including the decline of democracy at home and abroad.

I’m generally a pessimist about space travel. Too costly, too slow, and ultimately not much point. My Martian colony was established not as an escape hatch at all but as the appearance of one: to give people small hope in the last days of of a viable Earth. As long as they thought they could win a ticket off-planet, there was some continuing reason to go on. This is why the colony is under-resourced at the time we drop in to visit. It was never really meant to succeed.

Going to Mars is probably a thing we need to do – to study it, to gain our space-legs (as Heinlein would say), to prove to ourselves that we have courage and fortitude. But thinking of our human future has to focus on our one and only home, the place where we keep all our stuff.

 4. Your book has a very philosophical bent, but in what struck me as a very rebellious sort of way, which reminded me of books like The Master and Margarita and Roadside Picnic, as well as Stanislaw Lem.  Can you tell me where you were coming from on a philosophical level, and whether you feel you achieved your aims in that respect?

I remember again being a child, a young man this time. It was a humanities class and I must have been 15. The subject was future careers, and I asked if there were any money in philosophy. Everybody laughed and I didn’t understand why. Luckily, they thought I was kidding. But I’ve always wanted to make my living thinking through complex human problems. At first, as a writer – I idolized Asimov and King and Clarke. Later, as a psychologist. When I discovered existential psychology, this little corner of psychology was balm for wounds I didn’t know I had.

In academia, we spend too much time writing for journals with narrow scope. I’m have a few publications aimed at humanistic and existential practitioners. That’s fine, but it’s a lot of work to swap stories with people who already agree with me. I’m a lazy man at heart, and if I have a choice between writing in APA style and being punched in the face, I have to ask “how hard?”

My fiction is definitely a way of getting out the intellectual and emotional treasures I’ve discovered in existential psychology and sharing them with people in an accessible, hands-on way. More like a discovery center where you can touch everything, play with it, see how it works, and definitely less like an old museum with everything dimly lit and under UV protective glass.

In a way this is intentional, a goal. In another way, “existential psychologist” isn’t just a job you can do; it’s an identity. I had to remake myself as a human to do this. So the philosophy isn’t only something a know but who I am as a person, and the best way to share it isn’t to talk about it but to embody it. I am grateful to a whole host of kindly teachers and mentors, some of whom are now dear friends, for being with me through this work.

It’s for sure an act of rebellion to write stories in this mode. Putting “literary” on the cover is the kiss of death for a modern novel. I ended up doing everything myself because this work is not at all commercial. It’s for a particular kind of reader: one willing to think, grasp for meanings, and to share in my sadness.

It still makes me cry to read it, so I would say it is a success in that limited fashion: it’s authentic. It isn’t modified to fit a market. It’s me. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

5.  Where do you plan to go in the next book in this series?  Without giving away too many spoilers, por favor… I struggled to imagine that the first book could get resolved, so it’s been boggling my mind.  “Where do you even GO from here?”

Not planning a series here. I’m flattered that people keep asking: it means that someone has really identified with the characters and immersed in the world such that they aren’t ready to leave it. That is gratifying and I’m extremely pleased. For me, too, Jaye’s little world holds enough attraction that I do have the tickles of ideas for more stories.

There is a prequel already: What Hope Wrought visits the last days of the Earth Jaye’s father conspires to leave. Some of the characters in Finding Life on Mars also inhabit this dying world in at least minor ways. That story, too, focuses on a character struggling with the notion of being human.

The last page of FLOM does offer a direction for future inquiry. I’d invite folks to read that last page again. If another book emerges in this universe, it will explore that final event, and be related to the problems of the dying Earth in WHW: synthetic life, artificial intelligence.

Finally, there is a crossover story linking What Hope Wrought to Finding Life on Mars. “The Endpoint of Sentience,” the titular story in a collection of shorts, visits some of the logic and tragedy of the final intelligent decisions of Merlin’s inhuman offspring left behind on Earth.

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.)

If you like this meditative, broody style of writing, Finding Life on Mars is far from my only work. I write across genres, always reflecting though on basic existential truths. For Love of Their Children does this work in a high fantasy setting, additionally throwing diversity into a genre that lately is much too Euro-centric and hyper-masculine. The Worst of Us is a supernatural thriller that, underneath the horror-story pacing and terse thriller structure is a meditation on guilt.

But before rushing off to fill the empty space we all find inside us when we finish reading a novel, I’d love if readers took some time to consult themselves about this story. Did you cry? Did you identify with a character? Was there any emotional content beyond entertainment? Discomfort? It would be lovely to sit with whatever came up in the course of reading this thing, and I’d love to hear about it.

 

Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, four with people in severe states at the psychiatric hospital, and nine doing international psychology. He is co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology, an organization helping Chinese psychotherapists to acquire counseling skills and develop professional infrastructure.

Additionally, Jason writes. His credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. He worries that academic writers spend too much time writing for journals only read by people who already agree with them and tries to get big ideas out in other formats.

Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.

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.

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