2015 Writing Wrap-Up

The writing life is about putting one foot in front of the other. I took a lot of steps in 2015.

Publishing-wise, this was my most successful year, yet. I’ve always built off previous years, but 2015 had a lot of great moments. “The Polka Man” came out in Faed from A Murder of Storytellers. “Mercury Beach” appeared in Yellow Mama, accompanied by an excellent illustration. “A Simple Device” was published in Rejected from ACA Books. “A Burial” was featured as part of the Page and Spine Fiction Showcase. “C Was for Cat” found a home with Body Parts Magazine. “Copy Rights” was printed in a beautiful edition of Sanitarium. “Voids” was posted by the Saturday Night Reader. I even sold another poem. “Crow, Why Do You Cry” appeared in Illumen. I published short stories every month at the Confabulator Cafe. To top it all off, my first solo collection All Manner of Dark Things came out in April and has been pretty well received.  Financially, I made far more writing than I ever had before. Trust me, that’s not saying much. I turned around and invested the money in my writing education, taking classes at LitReactor with some of my favorite writers, such as Benjamin Whitmer, Nicholas Kaufman, Helen Marshall, Jordan Hamessley, and Simon Strantzas.

I got the opportunity do A LOT of panels at ConQuest in Kansas City. Eight panels, plus a reading. I think I moderated five. I was running all weekend and exhausted by the end of it, but it was a great experience. I love talking about books, writing, and the horror genre in particular. I did more panels at the Longview Literary Festival at Metropolitan Community College. I spoke to the Young Writer’s Group at Sumner Academy in Kansas City. They were amazing, and I wish them great success. Who knows where the literary life will take them? I did a signing at the local Hastings and another at the Topeka Public Library’s Great Writers, Right Here author fair.  I even served as a juror for the 2015 Stoker Awards. There were other opportunities for events that I didn’t take advantage of, but I hope that this is just the beginning.

2015 is going to be hard to beat, but I am going to give it a shot. “Assholes with Guns” just came out in The Literary Hatchet. “Blood and Dust” will be out in Theater B from A Murder of Storytellers very soon, and “Patchwork” will be coming out in Typhon: A Monster Anthology from Pantheon Magazine. I am also hoping that both my novella Mama’s Little Boy and my second collection Whispers and Proclamations will be out some time this year. There will surely be other things. There always is. I am planning on being at ConQuest and Longview again. WorldCon will be in Kansas City this year, and I would love to be a part of it. I may even pick up a couple more cons here and there as they fit in to my schedule. There have been discussions about me conducting a couple of writer’s workshops, and my monthly contributions to The Confabulator Cafe will continue.

As I said at the beginning, this profession is about always moving forward. I’m proud of my 2015 steps, but I hope to take many more in 2016. It’s a long journey, but the only way to get where I’m going is to keep writing and see what opportunities present themselves. Thank you for following along in 2015, and I hope you will still be there with me a year from now.

Links to all of this year’s publications can be found by clicking “The Work” in my header menu.  You can pick up a signed copy of All Manner of Dark Things at “The Store” if you prefer to avoid Amazon.

Looking Back and Looking Forward: The Year in Review and Preview

For many the New Year is a time of reflection and resolution. I am no different. It’s a chance to look back on accomplishments, and set goals for the next 365 days. Looking back on the past year in writing, I accomplished quite a bit. Looking forward, I hope to accomplish quite a bit more.

The last year was spent pursuing an education. My master’s degree will be wrapping up this year. On Monday, I start work on my thesis. The curriculum has worked out much better than I could have even planned. I went in to the program hoping that close reading of great literature would make me a better writer. What I didn’t expect is that so many of the books would have a direct connection to my type of writing. Every class I took had classic works of dark fiction. I read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Thomas Preckett Prest’s String of Pearls, Richard Marsh’s The Beetle, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Marie Corelli’s Ziska: The Problem of a Wicked Soul, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, among other classic dark works. I read both Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Bram Stoker’s Dracula twice. This semester, I will read Hound of the Baskervilles for the second time in a class on detective fiction that will include works by Poe, Doyle, and Hammett. Overall, I’ve been happy with the sort of books I’ve studied.

I love classes. I love learning. Even after I am done with grad school, I will keep reading literary criticism. I’ve also got plans to take more classes in the future. That being said, I am ready to get back to producing literature, rather than just analyzing it.  It was a good year for publications. “Collectors” appeared in Separate Worlds, “Waking” appeared in Epiphany Magazine, “Victor’s Indifference” appeared in The Rusty Nail, “Hatched” appeared in Dark Eclipse, “Bloodline” appeared in Hungur Magazine, and “Flute of the Dead” appeared in Bete Noire. (You can find copies of these stories under “The Work” link at the top of the page.)  I have more short fiction waiting to go out, but I also want to get around to rewrites of longer work. I have two and half novels on my hard drive waiting for edits.

Officially, my degree won’t be complete until July, which will be over halfway through the next year, but I am already looking forward to what comes after that. Novels, short stories, a collection, and maybe even research on the literary history of the haunted house. The point of my education is not only to learn a new skill in literary criticism and theory, but to become a better writer. I am eager to test its influence and continue pushing my literary career forward. That will be a never-ending, life-long process, but hopefully this year will provide a good spark to get the fire burning.

I am excited for the lifetime of writing that I have ahead of me. I hope you stick around and see how it all plays out. Fly or crash and burn, it should be an interesting trip.

Book Review: House of Leaves

House of LeavesHouse of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

House of Leaves isn’t so much a book as a literary amusement park. Most books, I could explain the plot, and while you may not experience the writing style, you will get the idea. House of Leaves is barely explainable in text. What is the plot anyway? The Navidson’s house? Zampano’s criticism of the Navidson film? Navidson himself? Zampano himself? Johnny Truant’s tumble down the rabbit hole? Or is the plot the book, just reading and finishing the book, just like Johnny Truant before you.

I’ve spoken to people who read the book in a couple of different ways. Some read it linearly, some (like me) followed all the notes to various other sections as they were mentioned, essentially reading out of order. Some said they didn’t really read the footnotes. Definitely read them. There is so much there. In fact, that is part of the brilliance of the book. The footnotes are incomplete. There are things still to be translated and decoded, and they are things that really do add to the story. I found myself writing footnotes in the margins, finishing the work.

House of Leaves takes a lot of chances. Writers are always told to strip anything that slows the story down. Danielewski plays with speed like a four year-old at record turntable. They are told to never remind the reader that they are reading a book. Danielewski constantly reminds us, and in fact makes it a challenge.

This is a book about a book about a movie (and a book?), and before long, the real story, at least for me, becomes the book itself. The two major plotlines are serviceable and would have been great on their own in stand-alone novels, but by making this book the way he did, Danielewski created something special that will last the test of time. It’s fun and disturbing. References and allusions abound and you will find the familiar ones to be spot on. Students of literary criticism will see a lot of satire long with the horror, as the book takes a lot of satirical shots at academic criticism and theory, but you really don’t have to know anything about criticism in order to love this book.

Overall, I cannot recommend it enough, read slowly, with a pencil for notes, just like Truant.
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Book Review: Southern Gods

Southern Gods

I met John Hornor Jacobs at ConQuest 44 in Kansas City. He was on a panel I attended and had some things to say about writing that I strongly supported. He spoke a little bit about his debut novel, Southern Gods. I bought it from a bookstore in the dealer room, and made it my next book to read.

Sometimes, you run in to a book that falls directly into your wheelhouse. Researching John Hornor Jacobs, I quickly found that we had similar backgrounds and similar literary interests. His influences were listed on Goodreads as Stephen King, William Faulkner, and Donald E. Westlake.  Prior to writing, he was a musician and graphic artist. While none of this specifically explains the appeal of Southern Gods, it definitely sets up a sort of compatibility with a certain writer (me) who would share his influences.

The book description makes Southern Gods sound like a regional Gothic novel mixed with H. P. Lovecraft. I don’t think that is particularly accurate. There is a lot more Stephen King in the flavor than Lovecraft, and while the South is a strong component of the story, the narrative more closely mirrors a pulp crime novel. Bull Ingram, one of the novel’s two protagonists, is a hardboiled character sent in search of a strange, dark musician with the ability to raise the dead and drive men mad. The Lovecraftian elements come in to play with strange books and old gods, who can’t help but involve themselves with humanity. As Vonnegut would say, so it goes.

The story doesn’t feel like a first novel. There are a lot of good things happening. Jacobs has a talent for storytelling. I found the characters and situations to be very interesting. Reviewing the book on Goodreads, one of my friends said after reading the novel, he wondered why he had never thought of it. I believe that is a great compliment to the story. It feels like it could have only been told in one way, as if the story was always there, just waiting to be written. It feels natural and simple, but without roaming into obvious.

I found myself staying up late into the night to finish the novel, which is something I don’t say very often as I get older. I didn’t read anything else from the moment I started the book to the moment I turned the last page, which is also uncommon. It kept my attention and it kept me reading. There isn’t much more you can ask from a book.

There is room for improvement, don’t get me wrong. Technically, the writing is above average, but will no doubt get better. It improved quite a bit between the beginning and end of the novel. However, it’s hard to imagine a better debut novel by a relatively new writer, which is obvious by the Stoker® nomination and the successful sales.

If you are a fan of regional horror and the style of a fifties crime novel, Southern Gods is definitely worth a read. I enjoyed it immensely.

Review: Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon

Red Moon: A Novel
by Benjamin Percy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Benjamin Percy is a fantastic, talented writer. His prose is tight and descriptive. He’s got great imagery and you never question his characters’ motivations. I enjoyed this novel. It has a weight to it that we are sometimes missing in the horror genre. This is true “literary” horror, steeped in political tensions. Like the best of its predecessors, this book is reflective of its time, an artifact of the particular fears of a particular generation. The best horror has always stripped away the pretenses of modernity, cracking the facade and letting through a truer light of our fears and our reactions to them.

The weakness of this novel is structural. Writers of our generation grew up with television and film, and you can see that influence in a lot of modern writing. There are several parts of this book that read like a movie. The scene will cut from a character, just as something is about to happen, creating tension. However, when you return to the character, the action has already occurred and the character is left to reflect upon it. As a result, you may find out a character is dead, and then spend the chapter finding out how they died. But just as human memory is not as strong as human experience, flashback is never as strong as active narration.

Percy rectifies some of the structural damage of this narrative style by writing in present tense. As a result, the flashbacks read in the past, rather than past perfect, which would have weakened them further. However, I couldn’t escape the feeling that we are sometimes robbed of visceral, immediate experience that is such a trademark of good horror. We don’t get the cathartic emotional release because we already know the outcome of the scene.

Ultimately, the book feels like something very good, that had a shot to be something special, but just barely missed. I highly recommend it, but can’t help but think of what might have been.

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365 Days of Chasing Dreams

2012 proved to be a year of transition. Over the last few years, my family has been in flux. After the divorce, my time with my son became much more uncertain. This year, after she moved halfway across the country, I found myself seeing him nearly all the time. It has been great, although I dread the inevitable equalization, when I have to deal with daily life without him.

I began a Master’s Degree program at Fort Hays State University, focusing on Literary Arts. It has been a lot of fun, so far, and I especially look forward to a class on monsters in Gothic literature this Spring. I have academic aspirations to research dark literature in the future. This class should be a great starting point for my study.

The Confabulator Café, the project I began with a local group of writers, celebrated a year online, with no signs of slowing down in 2013. You can find my column there every Monday, with flash fiction published there once a month. I just wrote a re-telling of The Brothers Grimm’s Pied Piper, which will be available there in a couple of weeks. I will post an update when it goes live.

2012 was also a successful year for submissions. According to the good people at Duotrope, I submitted to 55 markets this year. Thanks to that constant stream of submissions, I had writing published in Insomnia Press and Danse Macabre Du Jour. In addition, I have several publications coming out this year. You can see the list and their tentative release dates by clicking “The Work” on the menu above. You can find links to the published pieces there, as well.

What is in store for 2013? There will be a lot of time spent writing literary criticism. I will continue to contribute each week to The Confabulator Café, althoguh I have surrendered my editorial duties there, for now. As for publications, I hope for more of the same, but that is one of those things you can’t control in writing. All you can do is keep writing, keep submitting, and hope someone likes it. Hopefully, I will finish Heaven’s Edge and re-write Kill Creek Road some time in there.

It is an odd thing. 365 days seems like such a long time, yet it disappears so fast, and no matter how much you have done, you never feel like you have done enough. There is always so much left to do. Here’s to the next 365 days, and all the dreams left to chase.