Month: October 2016

Dark Novels for the Dark Half of the Year

Over the last year (I fudged it – I finished A Dark Matter on October 24, 2015), I’ve read a number of excellent dark-minded books.  Here are the ones that stuck best with me–horror, noir, suspense, and one non-fiction.  No books in the middle or end of a series; some short stories; one novella.  One book that’s the first in a series.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that if you don’t want to be up late at night, don’t read any of these–they’re all that good, and that disturbing on one level or another.

The order here goes from most recent to least recent, because that’s how I have them listed on Goodreads.  Links are to Goodreads.

The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle (supernatural horror)(novella)

A riff on a Lovecraft horror story, “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is extremely racist–which this story fixes.  A con artists gets sucked into a bigger con than he can handle–one spanning the cosmos.

Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith (noir/suspense)

The most suspenseful novel I’ve ever read.  I started listening to this on audio and had to finish it in print because I was sure it was gonna give me an ulcer.  An ordinary guy inadvertently “trades” murders with a psychopath.  Good luck figuring out which one’s the psychopath…

The House Next Door – Anne Rivers Siddons (supernatural horror…or madness?)

The suburbs.  Oh, the suburbs.  A truly suburbian haunted house story.  A talented architect builds a house of many strange and elegant angles, and loses his talent when he invites something unintended into the house.  Told from the POV of the neighbors.

The Savage Season – Joe Lansdale (noir/black humor)(first in series)

The first of the Hap & Leonard books.  A caper gone so wrong for two Southern boys that you have to laugh so you don’t cry.  Hap’s ex is back in town with a caper that should pull in a lot of money and scratch his ol’ doo-gooder itch.

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi (weird fiction)(short stories)

Disorienting, somewhat-entertwined short stories involving a lot of keys, a lot of doorways, a lot of regret.  Mysterious and poetic…one of the most gorgeous books I’ve read this year.  If you like Kelly Link, you should be reading this.

The Fireman – Joe Hill (post-apocalyptic)

For all that it’s 750 pages, a quick read.  A satisfying, action-packed post-apocalyptic novel.  Not so much with the subtle, but sometimes that’s just what you want.  A strange plague spreads throughout the world, causing people to start on fire.  There’s a guy with a mysterious past who tries to help the infected survive, despite every effort of the uninfected to kill them all…

The Suspicions of Mr. Wicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (non-fiction)

Non-fiction that reads like a novel.  The story of one of the first actual detectives, set in Victorian times.  Focuses on the resistance he faces in trying to solve the horrific murder of a little boy:  sometimes the people closest to the murder are the ones who least want it solved.

Audrey’s Door – Sarah Langan (supernatural horror)

The case of the unfortunate architecture strikes again.  A young woman fleeing commitment, a suspiciously cheap apartment in a historic building, a tragedy in the making.  What made this so memorable and delightful was the voice of the novel, which keeps you grounded one second and drops you into the abyss the next.

Lovecraft Country – Matt Ruff (supernatural horror)(short stories/novellas)

Entertwined short stories and novellas that together become a gestalt of horror!  That statement is melodramatic but true.  A rich old white guy who lives in a creepy Northern mill town invites a young black man to step into his parlour…racism, family, and the horror of living while black in the 1950s…which may not be all that different than today.  I’d call it the author’s masterpiece but I think Matt Ruff already hit that with The Mirage.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories – Flannery O’Connor (noir)(short stories)

I put off reading this collection for years.  Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Because everyone called them literary.  Which…okay?  I think “literary” likes to claim things that maybe doesn’t belong to it sometimes.  These are some of the finest noir short stories I’ve ever read, the blackest condemnation of human nature you could ever hope to meet.  And if you’re like, “Oh, but noir is supposed to be set in the big city and have detectives,” then try Otto Penzler’s The Best American Noir of the Century.  About half the stories in the book are set in the back woods of somewhere…

Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Stories to Stay Awake By (horror & thriller)(short stories)

I found it annoying that the stories are alphabetical by author:  the flow was so awkward!  But they’re all page-turners, so you get over it.  Some supernatural horror, a couple of sci-fi horror, but mostly thrillers.  “Don’t do it!” seems to be the common theme of all the stories in this collection…oh, but you know that they have to, they must!

Beloved – Toni Morrison (supernatural horror)

This is the most horrific book that I’ve ever read.  I had to go through a small grieving process when I finished it…the heartache.  A young black woman during the slave era has to make a terrible choice when escaping from her owner.  The choice she makes never lets her go.

A Dark-Adapted Eye – Ruth Rendell (noir/suspense)

The eye of the title belongs to that of the reader:  this is one of those books that you have to read, then at least read the opening chapter again.  When you do, you’ll see the events more clearly–not just because you know how it all comes out, but because your perspective has been changed.  I hate to say more…a woman, Faith, goes back over her memories of an aunt who was hanged for murder, and finds more than she bargained for.

Zombie – Joyce Carol Oates (noir/suspense)

No actual zombies were harmed in the making of this book.  I think.  Anyway, it’s a toss-up over who’s creepier: the main character, a serial killer, or the author, who puts on his persona like a skin suit.  Either way, short and perfect.

Peace – Gene Wolfe (weird fiction/supernatural horror)

One of Gene Wolfe’s earliest books.  Another one where I hate to say too much, so I’ll quote Neil Gaiman instead:  Peace really was a gentle Midwestern memoir the first time I read it. It only became a horror novel on the second or the third reading.”  Alden Dennis Weer looks back over his life, which has been filled with small, surreal oddities–and even weirder stories, told to him by family and friends…

A Dark Matter – Peter Straub (supernatural horror)

I listened to this on audio about the same time as I was reading Peace in print, which turned out to be a fabulous combination.  This is not the most straightforward of horror novels:  the resolution of the main questions/themes of the novel happens about four-fifths of the way through the novel, almost as an aside–you have to watch for it.  But it was lovely, subtle, layered, thoughtful, and covered me in goosepimples more than once as I realized something the narrators had been taking for granted.  Don’t read this for the jump scares.  Read this for the moment when you realize the horror implied by the casual comments, and for the suspense.

 —

I hope you enjoy these–I did!

 

Links: The week in review

I  have nothing deep and meaningful to talk about with writing at the moment but I want the feeling of having blogged, so I’m going to repost some of the links that I put up last week.  Or is that too honest?

A-hem.

Let me try again.

I have run into a number of wonderful things over the last week, and I thought I’d share some of them here, as it seems like Facebook has this tendency to hide the coolest stuff from people, because they’re–

No?

TOP TEN LINKS FROM LAST WEEK!  YOU’LL NEVER BELIEVE WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!!!*

*No rickrolls, I promise.

Ehhhh, close enough.

10.  If you ever wanted to know at least part of what a con man is thinking, check out this book:  How to Cheat at Everything:  A Con Man Reveals the Secrets of the Esoteric Trade of Cheating, Scams, and Hustles.  I gave it four stars (it went on a bit).  Some of it may even be true.

9.  The Witches’ Brew Bundle is still up, a slew of stories of witches for Halloween.  I have a short story in it, “The Ballad of Molly McGee,” about a grandmother, a baby, a foul-mouthed young woman, and the dying spirit of a mountain.  I think this is done on Friday.

8.  I put up a craft blog on information flow.  I’m just starting to be able to consciously handle information flow–so it’s not the most refined blog ever.  But if you have tips or challenges on the subject, I’d be glad to hear ’em.

7.  Because I am nothing if not meta, I have a listicle within a listicle:  Ten Odd and Eerie Tales of London’s Victorian Cemeteries.  London used to have a special train just for funerals, did you know that?

6.  If you write dark fiction (of various stripes, like dark fantasy, horror, etc.), you can pitch your completed work to various agents and editors at #PitDark on Twitter, October 20.  More details at the link.

5.  You can make sure you’re registered as a Colorado voter online at the Secretary of State website.  And that’s all I have to say about that.

4.  Some lovely black and white photographs of Hong Kong from the 1950s.

3.  Researchers led by the Lund University archaeologists recreated one of the houses destroyed in the Pompeii volcanic eruption, a huge banker’s house.

2.  Some Latin American drinks that will make me forget pumpkin spice for fall.  HAHAHAHAHA!  The joke’s on you:  my husband, Lee, just made pumpkin bread.  I can have my Latin American drinks, and my pumpkin spice, too!

And my #1 link last week (in my humble opinion, anyway) was…

1.  The Mad Farter of France, who earned a higher fee at Moulin Rouge than Sarah Bernhardt, while playing his internal trombone for the amusement of adoring crowds.

No, seriously.

I also received the books I bought from Powell’s while I was out in Oregon for the Historical Fiction class; I bought Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior (Freshly Updated) by Judith Martin.  While I deplore the apostrophe use of the title, I can only approve of the following:

Dear Miss Manners:

Please tell me what is the proper way to stuff wedding invitations?  Etiquette books and local stioners have given me conflicting answers about whether… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

Please listen carefully, because this is going to sound like instructions for making paper monkeys out of bubblegum wrappers, as translated from the Japanese.

{And}

Dear Miss Manners:

Sme time ago, I had a short, tempestuous affair with my wife’s boss’s wife… [snip]

Gentle Reader:

No.  The only person who would feel better after such a confession would be you, and you don’t deserve it.  Whatever she suspected, your wife does not deserve the pain caused by certainty and vividness.

Besides, a secret affair is, by its nature, a secret jointly held by two people.  Although she has dissolved this union, you retain joint custody of the secret.  That a gentleman may find himself participating in a dishonorable situation does not excuse him from the obligation to pursue the course of honor within that situation.

Burn!  Almost as good as something out of Jane Austen.  Have a good week, and let me know if you’re reading something good.

Kobo 30% Off Promo Sale

Kobo has a 30% off sale on selected ebook titles – the promo code is 30OCT.

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows

A Murder of Crows:  Seventeen Tales of Monster and the Macabre is there to be had if you want it 🙂

Information Flow: An initial blather

Note:  this is not the tightest blog post ever.  

In trying to write about handling information so I can clear up confusion, I keep stumbling over how to explain how to handle information about handling information…etc.  Things got confusing.  So my apologies in advance; this is tricky stuff to catch, and I’m fighting myself.  I’ll probably redo this post later, after I’ve spent more time with with the concept of how to handle information flow.  Take this as an initial brainstorming session, not a finely crafted position.

The bane of my writerly existence has been…

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

Just writing that statement makes me feel like walking away from the computer, it’s so fraught with heartbreak.  And it’s totally on me.  I did it–or rather didn’t do it.  I didn’t present the story in a way that was readable and fair.

There are characters.  And plots.  And settings.  And conflicts.  And some other stuff.  And those things are important.

But there’s another level of what I’m doing, and it’s “how to tell the readers what will happen, what is happening, and what has happened.”

Which is kind of hard to explain to a non-writer.  Let’s say characters, plots, settings, and conflicts are all ingredients for a good story, but a lot of how a story goes over depends on the skills of the cook.  Good ingredients make for a better dish, but a good cook can do great things with whatever comes to hand.

How and when you tell readers things is part of a writer’s cooking skills, as it were.

And I really haven’t been paying attention to it.

I’m making some really great stories but I’m not letting other people really taste the dish.  I’m not dragging them into my imagination.  I’m not setting the stakes.  I’m not making promises the story has to keep.  I’m not clarifying what their questions are before they can ask.  I’m not making sure there is no way to misunderstand my goddamned pronouns.  I’m not describing every setting in such detail that the reader can be inside it.  I’m not reminding people of critical details as they become more vital in the plot.  I’m not wrapping up loose ends, I’m not telling the reader what this all means to the characters, I’m not making sure that I’ve nailed down everything I promised in the beginning, or taken out that which nobody needs.

Personally, I have a way higher tolerance for being utterly confused in a story than most people.  Recently, I went to a Historical Fiction class in Oregon with Kris Rush & Dean Smith.  We had books to read for class; one of them was The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen L. Carter, an alternate history.

I loved it; everyone else in the class was meh or hated it.

The reason, Kris explained, was that the author hadn’t handled the information flow correctly, and assumed the reader was familiar with the historical time period, the historical figures in the book, and the reason that all of this was so important.

I had no issue with the book, and knew very little of the history.  It’s just that I’m used to extracting that kind of information from the barest hints.  I’m not sure why; maybe it’s just that that’s how I’m used to interacting with the world:  not paying attention when the explanations are being given out, getting bored with repetition, faking like I understand what’s going on later based off some half-remembered clues.  I really do think that I have some sort of girl-version ADD going on.

Doesn’t everyone do that?  No?

Well…okay.  I’m working on being more clear on what I’m writing means.

Here’s my initial checklist of things to look for with information flow, not to be used to plan an opening but to go over if a story is an informational flop:

  • Demonstrate character in the opening (the opening is the first 500 words or so).  The ways I’ve been doing this are to show the character doing something characteristic, or to lay the character voice on pretty thick.
  • Show setting in the opening (and demonstrate it, if it’s going to be a “character” later on).  How does one show why the setting means what it means to the character?  Describe it with love or hate, show it in contrast to something else?
  • Suggest conflict and stakes in the opening, and either demonstrate them or promise that they’ll be demonstrated later (this the part where you can totally bury clues to the ending in the beginning).  If the ending revolves around a death, maybe show a death in the beginning (thrillers do this all the time in the prologue).  If the ending revolves around a swindle, maybe show a swindle in the beginning.  I think romances are particularly good at this, often hinting how the relationship difficulties will be resolved in the meet cute.
  • Make promises about the story, using clues and subtext.  I initially tried to explain what subtext was, but that’s another blog post.  “I want to surprise the reader, so I won’t tell them what’s going to happen!!!” is a common tendency among writers.  It’s no good.  Do the opposite of that.
  • Explain the rules in the opening, or make a promise that the rules will be explained soon (and then do so; I think a 25% mark is a reasonable cutoff point).  For example, if the solution of your story is about magic, then you better explain how the damn magic works and proceed to play fair with it.
  • Explain the necessary backstory in the beginning of the story (the first 25% or so).  The opening of The Mummy is great at this; the voiceover doesn’t sound like a robot speaking, but like a wonderful storyteller telling you the beginning of a dramatic story over a fire.  (Note the bug on the back of Imhotep’s robe, as a hint.)
  • Undo any unwarranted possible assumptions in the beginning of the story by acknowledging them, then showing how your story differs.  Readers aren’t blank slates, who knew?  And so if you’re writing a story about vampires in which they can go out in the sunlight, you better damn reverse that assumption before it comes up in the story itself.
  • Use names carefully.  I recently discovered that not everyone slides between different versions of their names and nicknames as easily as I do.  All the names that a character is going to use have to be directly connected to each other on a regular basis.  “Jennifer (also known as ‘Weasel Killer’) Jones had recently come into a sum of money that no woman with such bad taste should ever see in a lifetime.”
  • Nail down all pronouns and vaguewords (“stuff”) so that there’s only one thing that they could possibly point to.
  • Give explanations and descriptions of new elements of the story before they become important.   If a reader feels anything other than juicy curiosity when they ask a question, then you need to back up and answer the question before it can be asked.  Think like a verbal storyteller:  this is a tactic to get your audience members to keep their damn mouths shut.
  • Remind the readers of important points multiple times.  Good grief you’d think that people would get bored of this, but apparently not.   “But you missed the clue on page 37” is such a horrible thing to have to say, though.
  • Tell us what events mean to the characters.  You have to tell the readers what it all means, either directly (“She would have given her right eye and a parrot’s wing to never have to see Soren the Pirate ever again”) or indirectly (” ‘Did you miss me?’ Soren asked.  After careful consideration, she splashed the pint of beer in Soren’s face, then began beating him with the heavy mug.  If she had had her pistol she would have shot him, once in his twinking eye, and once somewhere else, just for fun”).
  • Tie up all the loose ends from the beginning.  At the end, go back to the beginning and see if you a) fired all the guns that were on the wall at the end, and b) put all fired guns on the wall in the beginning.
  • Resolve the main conflict of the story.  Even if there’s a sequel.  Sometimes overarching fantasy series don’t do this, but it’s almost always better if they do.  Think back to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn Trilogy.  The ending of each book was such a mind@#$% that you started the next book with a completely different, and increased, set of stakes.  The main conflict is resolved…and replaced with something even worse.  Dun dun dunnnnnn…
  • Tell us what the ending means to the characters.  Stoic is a meaning.  Conflicted is a meaning.  Riding off toward the mountains so that a kid doesn’t grow up to be a gunslinger is a meaning…then watching the kid watching the gunslinger ride away is another meaning (Shane).  You don’t have to spell it out–but you can.

This is not, I’m sure, a complete list.

I mean, if nothing else, there has to be something that says when you’ve given too much information and are blathering on a bit (I’m always saying things twice, once to say the thing, and then to say the thing more poetically).  I’m not really sure how to say that yet, though, because I feel there’s something deeper going on there that I haven’t identified yet.

And paragraphing, I haven’t said anything about paragraphing, and that’s vital.

Hiding clues versus not hiding clues, ugh, didn’t even touch that…

Ehhhh…this subject is probably a book, when all is said and done.  But here it is for now, the incomplete and initial list.  The big uglies of information flow…as I understand them so far.

“I like the story but I have no idea what it means.”

If nothing else, let me apologize for all the times that I didn’t let readers fully in on all the fun & games I’ve had.  From here on out, I am to rectify that.

Witches’ Brew Bundle: For Halloween

Facebook+image+-+1200x628The over image for this bundle was so much fun I that I’m adding it full-size.

The Witches’ Brew Bundle is up, and contains my short fantasy story, “The Ballad of Molly McGee.”

Never trust a witch; she might not be telling you everything.  This is the story of how Molly McGee’s grandmother saved Molly’s newborn baby from her father–the spirit of a dying, strip-mined mountain.

Sometimes things get complicated, even for witches–and their grandmothers.

I wrote this while on vacation in the Colorado Rocky Mountains, out by Victor and Cripple Creek Colorado.  We went to all the history museums we could find, and all the tourist trap shops.  This is what my brain spat out during that trip.  It’s more than a little bit goofy, and says something about how some words get old–but others don’t.

MollyMcGeeEbookCover.1

 

 

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