Archive for August, 2009

Flash Fiction: An Interview with Nicholas Ozment

August 21, 2009

The short story was once famously defined as fiction that could be read in a single sitting. When we look back today at the stories that definition was meant to describe — the “short story” of a century or two ago — we notice at once that the world has changed since then. Many a supernatural tale by Hawthorne, Algernon Blackwood, M.R. James, Edith Wharton, Lovecraft — even Poe, the “Father of the Short Story” — seems anything but short by current standards.

I wonder what the readers and writers of those classic stories would have made of the shortest stories on the market today. Would they have been shocked, perhaps even a little offended, like many in the crowd hearing the Gettysburg Address? President Lincoln’s speech — arguably the most powerful and enduring in our country’s history — seemed on the day of its delivery to be hardly a speech at all. “He can’t be finished speaking already!” some thought.

So we might wonder about these short, short stories that have become such a large part of the literary landscape in the 21st century. Microfiction . . . flash fiction. Do such a few words really constitute a story? Not that we should carry the Gettysburg analogy too far; but the writing principle exemplified in Mr. Lincoln’s words is the same ideal that flash fictionists strive for. They seek to arrange a very few purposeful words to get a job done . . . a “job” that will continue to resonate with readers for a long time after the story is told.

Since this type of writing is most definitely not my area of expertise, I thought this would be an excellent time to let you hear a voice other than mine. For this posting, we have a guest author!

Nicholas Ozment is a long-time friend. I met him indirectly through Dragonfly. A particular reviewer, though overall quite positive, had taken my book to task for its Christian elements. In the letters section of the well-known genre magazine in which the review had appeared, I noticed a response defending Dragonfly on this issue by the co-editors of a magazine called Mooreeffoc — one Nicholas Ozment and one G. N. Dybing. I quickly tracked down an address for them, wrote to thank them, and checked out their magazine; and we quickly discovered that all three of us were very much on the same wavelength regarding what delighted us in the world of speculative fiction. We were friends for several years before we met face-to-face. (I collected every issue of Mooreeffoc [and yes, even read it, not just collected!], which was the sort of magazine I’d always wished had existed — and which, incidentally, received an official mention in Writer’s Digest as one of the most promising new small-press magazines. I commend to you Ozment’s House of Twilight, the current successor of Mooreeffoc, which picked up where the former magazine left off.)

Anyway, Nick is our featured guest this week, and he has a lot of insights to offer, whether microfiction is your thing or not. I’ll start by giving you a partial list of his qualifications and literary accomplishments — a list that is anything but “micro” — and then the interview follows. I’m very grateful to Nick for agreeing to do this interview, and for his well-considered responses.

First, here’s his weblog: Ozmentality, at http://ozment.livejournal.com. (It includes his complete bibliography, links to on-line publications, and regular updates.)

 Nick recently debuted as a featured cover author in the May issue (#3) of Arkham Tales (www.arkhamtales.com) with his chilling story “The House on Waterloo Lane.”

 He is the co-editor of Every Day Poets (www.everydaypoets.com), which provides readers with a new poem every single day.

 And he is a regular contributor of flash fiction to Every Day Fiction (www.everydayfiction.com). (Like its companion site, this one will fix you up with a new story every day, short enough to read on your lunch break, or over your morning coffee, or while you’re supposed to be stirring the soup, or whenever.)

 Nick’s humorous fantasy novel, Knight Terrors: The (Mis)Adventures of Smoke the Dragon, is even now being serialized on-line at http://knighterrors.blogspot.com. This nifty tome is slated to be published as a book, with illustrations — probably early in 2010 — by Cyberwizard Productions. (I suggested the title! MY idea! — but Nick claims he’d already come up with the “Knight Terrors” part himself.)

 In February 2009, one story from that book, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” finished in the top ten in the 2008 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll for the category fantasy short story.

 Nick’s story “Cat Got Your Tongue, Evil Got Your Eye” placed third in the 2008 SFReader Fiction contest (www.sfreader.com).

 His story “The Wrong Blue” placed second in the 2005 Dylan Days Creative Writing Contest, fiction—general division. (This is one of my favorites of his stories.)

 He received an Honorable Mention in the eighteenth annual Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, for “The Prairie Whales Are All Extinct,” published in Mythic Delirium #11.

This one particularly relates to our interview: his flash piece “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” was published on Every Day Fiction, July 21, 2008. To date, it has been the most-read EDF story. It was anthologized in Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 (November 2008). As of July 30, 2009 it had 51,516 hits on EDF.

 Nick’s stories have been widely published on-line, anthologized, and recorded for podcasts. He’s had work in Weird Tales. He has published academic essays on Tolkien, Shakespeare, and Frank Belknap Long, he’s a reviewer of books and movies — and somehow in all that, he finds time to teach a full load of university courses — and to be a family man (most recently a proud father).

So — are we all agreed he knows some things about writing in today’s world? Without further adieu, here’s the ‘view — I’m FSD and he’s OZ.

FSD: One genre in which you’ve had great success is flash fiction. Would you briefly define flash fiction for our readers?

 OZ: I really couldn’t define it better than Camille Gooderham Campbell does in her introduction to The Best of Every Day Fiction 2008 anthology, so if you don’t mind my quoting from her:

“Despite its appeal as a quick read, flash fiction is not simplistic. Quite the opposite; it can and should be one of the most demanding literary forms, with a need for perfectly crafted prose, a complete story arc in a tight space, and an immediately engaging hook. [. . .] The defining characteristic of flash, beyond the number of words, is that it has a plot structure, with an introductory situation, rising action or tension, a climax, and a resolution. Because of the word-count restraint, some parts of the structure are often implied, hinted at, or sketched in, but the reader should be able to make a guess at the whole story arc.”

FSD: Do you regard a flash story to be a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm, or is flash an entirely different form?

OZ: Following Campbell’s definition, I’d lean toward the former: a conventional short story condensed to a microcosm. If it does not contain (or at least imply) each element of the traditional narrative arc—beginning, conflict, rising action, climax, resolution—then it becomes something else: a vignette or a prose poem or a character sketch.

FSD: Can you describe the process you go through from conception to the finished flash piece?

OZ: When I’m hit with an idea that turns into a flash, I usually think right away “This could probably be expressed in a very short form.” So I’m aware that what I’m writing is potentially a flash piece; however, I still write the story out as I see it unfolding—all the details, all the dialogue. That first draft almost always comes in over the 1,000-word maximum. And sometimes I discover that to tell the story right, it really needs more space, in which case I expand on it and it just becomes a short story.

But if I’m only off the mark  by 200 words or so, then I go through and start paring. Just as with poetry, I look for extraneous words—descriptions or bits of dialogue that don’t really add much to the essential story—and I take the scalpel to them. What can be left unsaid? What can the reader infer? Most adverbs and adjectives die at this stage, too. Then, when I’m down to, say, 1,002 words and I really don’t see how the piece could sacrifice another word, I get really nitpicky: Is there an article or a conjunction that won’t really be missed? Slice out a “the” here and an “and” there, and it’s there. That’s why some of my flash fiction comes in at 1,000 words exactly.

There are times, though, when I set out to trim 200 words and, in the trimming, find that more can go—here is a whole paragraph that isn’t really necessary—and then the piece (about which I was originally thinking “How could I possibly cut 1/6 of this and still retain its impact?”) ends up being 970 words. I like getting that wiggle room at the end—because then I can go back in and restore an adjective or two that it really pained me to lose.

FSD: What makes an outstanding flash story? When you’ve really gotten a piece right, what is it that you notice or recognize about the story?

OZ: It packs an emotional punch without recourse to the build-up one has in a longer story. That is why it is essential that your reader identify with the character(s) immediately: you don’t have time to draw the reader in gradually, filling in back-story. You’re throwing them into the action with strangers and asking them to empathize with these people. It’s a tough challenge: like convincing them to get married on a first date.

FSD: Do you know anything about the origins of flash fiction? Is it primarily a product of the Internet, which typically requires everything to be bite-sized and easy to take in at a glance . . . or does it have more of a relationship to, say, Asian poetic forms such as the haiku . . . or does it come from somewhere else?

OZ: The “microfiction” movement predates the Internet. I’ve seen collections from the 80s, but I’m not terribly knowledgeable about its roots before that. Hemingway is often credited with having written the shortest story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and one could point to works before that which would meet the criteria of flash. The Internet has certainly taken what was really a novelty subgenre and put it on the map, though. There are now dozens of web-magazines dedicated solely to flash fiction, and they are some of the more popular fiction sites on the Net. Probably for the reasons you articulated: a person on Digg or Stumble can click on the link to “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” and read it in a couple minutes. Immediate gratification.

FSD: What mistakes are commonly made by beginning writers of flash? Are there gimmicks or story patterns that flash editors are seeing way too much of?

OZ: The first, which has been alluded to before, is not really telling a story: what you’ve written does not have a narrative arc. It’s an amusing character sketch, or an interesting vignette, but it’s a snapshot, without the complicating action or change that a true story requires. Then it’s not flash.

The second is overreliance on the Twilight Zone-type twist ending. There is  a lot of that in flash, including some of the very best, but if the readers have not come on board with the characters, the most clever twist will lack impact. If the twist is amusing but there is no investment in the characters, then what you’ve written is really just a dressed-up joke. If the twist is frightening or tragic but the reader has no involvement with the characters, then the reader’s response to their fate is “Who cares?”

FSD: In many ways you are the present-day counterpart of, say, Ray Bradbury or Harlan Ellison — the writers who turned out story after story and made their living at it during the pulp era. To what degree is the business different now? How is the life of a short-fiction writer different than it was even a generation ago?

OZ: Well, the biggest difference now is that a Bradbury or Ellison could not make a living doing what they did. No one—not even a Stephen King—can pay the bills on short fiction. That’s why they’ve all gone to writing novels. I think the present-day counterparts to the pulp writers may be freelance television scriptwriters. If one can break in, then one can just squeeze out a living at it (twenty or thirty grand a year, I’ve heard). I’ve never tried. I’ve gone the other time-honored and respectable route of writers whose avocation is not profitable enough to be their vocation: I teach. (And I love teaching. Even if I could make a living writing full-time, I’d probably still teach.)

FSD: Your on-line story “The Only Difference Between Men and Boys” had 52,000 hits at the latest count. That’s an amazing number by anyone’s estimation. How do you account for the story’s runaway success? What is it that resonates with so many readers?

OZ: From what I understand, Star Wars and action-figure-collectibles communities embraced the story. A few people “Stumbled” or “Digged” it, gave it a thumbs up on the social network sites; it rose in the rankings on those sites so more people saw it and passed the link around. Eventually it “went viral,” to use the Net slang for something taking off and being seen by tens of thousands of people. Usually this happens with video clips from sites like Youtube, but here’s proof it can happen with fiction.

As to what resonates with those readers, I think it’s just nostalgia, pure and simple. Nostalgia for our childhood, forgetting about cares-of-life for a while and just playing. That’s something that really resonates in our overworked, overstressed, profit-driven society.

FSD: Is there anything you’d like to say about EDF, EDP, or anything else?

OZ: Welcome to the wave of the future. To quote Dylan, “The times they are a-changin’.”

FSD: Nick, thank you very much!

Under the Tower of Rejection: A Story’s Odyssey

August 16, 2009

We hear it all the time from writers, writing teachers, and the trade magazines: if you’re going to submit your stories or book manuscript for publication, learn to handle rejection. Develop a thick skin. Learn to discriminate among rejection letters, because there are bad ones, so-so ones, and very good ones. Glean what you can from them, and live to submit another day.

I thought it might be interesting to chronicle the journey of what I believe has been my most-rejected short story. This odyssey took place mostly in the time before everyone was using e-mail, and before most editors wanted anything to do with electronic submissions. So this story made its trips back and forth, back and forth across the Pacific in battered manila envelopes; it came back coffee-stained, just like in the stereotypes, to be printed out and sent forth anew. May this account of its rocky road to publication serve as encouragement to any who labor in the trenches, who plod onward because writing is what they do . . . and especially to those who wonder “Do I have what it takes? Will my writing ever see the light of day?” To all who love the arranging of words on paper — to all who would sell your words that others may read them and have an experience and see in their heads the pictures you see — I say: Persevere! Don’t give up. We continue to learn, and the road we’re on leads somewhere. The bottom line of my entire experience so far is this: Things happen when they’re supposed to, in the order they’re supposed to. Be the best you can be. Keep loving stories, keep loving people and life, and keep writing.

This is just about the season when, in high school, we would start marching band practice. In the sweltering heat of the middle of August, we would gather on the football field to learn the new half-time show. In that era, they were written for us — the music and the marching choreography — by a well-known professor / marching band leader from a university. As the football team grunted and crashed into each other in the distance, we band members would practice keeping our intervals measured as our lines swung and crisscrossed. With sweat stinging our eyes, we went through the bars of the Spanish Opener or Spirit of the Bull eighty times, ninety times, first just learning the movement on the field, then doing it with horns in our hands, then doing it as we played.

It’s quite a different thing to play on a marching field or in a parade than it is to play in the band room or in a concert hall. I suppose it’s something like the difference pilots feel between landing at an airport and landing on an aircraft carrier on the high sea. When you’re marching, your feet hit the ground, bam, bam, bam. The mouthpiece is going all over the place, mashing your lips, chipping your teeth. And none of that can affect your sound — if you’re playing a long, unbroken note, it has to be long and unbroken. If you’re a trombonist, you have to watch that you’re not whacking woodwind players in the back of the head with your slide. You have to keep your horn up parallel to the ground. You have to see the notes printed on that little flapping paper clipped just beyond your mouthpiece as you watch other moving people from the corners of your eyes — and oh, yeah, you’re supposed to watch the conductor, too. You’re burning up during the August practices, but you’re freezing during first-period band class on mornings in October and November, and at the late-season football games, your toes are nearing frostbite in those hard black shoes. You have to play loud enough so that the people in the stands hear more than drums. (I think that’s why there’s such a high burnout rate among marching-band clarinetists.)

Anyway, we had the best band teacher in the world, whose name was Jim Smith. That was really his name; it’s not an alias. In his marching band uniform, he looked exactly – exactly — like the band leader in the Funky Winkerbean comic strip (Harry Dingle?). Anyway — here comes the point of my story — we’d be slogging through this routine for about the third day, tired and irritated and wishing it were the beginning of summer instead of the end. And then Mr. Smith would order us to do the routine better each time. Don’t just mindlessly go through the motions the same way again and again. Every time you do it, he’d say, try to improve something. Concentrate. Or, as he would famously yell through his megaphone: “Find it! Find it!”

Mr. Smith’s patience and dedication, his excellence and attention to detail are still with me as I walk the writerly path. Don’t give up. Don’t go through wooden motions. Do it better each time. If a section is rough, take it home and practice it. If a section in your story is rough, spend the time — work the problem out. Write what you mean. Be conscious of what you’re putting on the page. Find it!

I also have to say this about Mr. Smith: he was one of a very few of my teachers who came to my local book-signing when Dragonfly was first released. He is a prime example of how the very best teachers teach much more than the particular discipline of their profession. They teach with their whole lives.

ANYWAY (I may have to pay the Pun Fund there for a very long, tangential story, but Mr. Smith is more than worth it. . . .) — here’s the journey of my most-rejected short story, “Under the Tower of Valk.” I’ll keep the editors anonymous so that I can quote from them.

1. First Submission: January 21, 2000

No response. On May 19, 2000, I sent a follow-up query.

No response. I waited until June 27, 2000 — well beyond the magazine’s posted response time, and then sent a last-resort follow-up by e-mail (a radical step with that magazine in those days — the editors were still pretty touchy about having their e-space invaded).

June 30, 2000: E-mail response from the editor: “O Frederic: No record at this end of either your manuscript or your follow-up inquiry. To save further time, and to avoid the risk of putting still more paper into the placid waters of the Pacific, I suggest the following: convert your story into a pure text file. Mark the beginning of any italics/underlining with ** and the end of any italics/underlining with *  Indent each paragraph five spaces; and Just In Case, put a blank line after each paragraph. Remind me, at the top of the e-mail, that I asked you to do this. Then (preferably) paste the text into the body of an e-mail to me — or if that doesn’t work, attach it to an e-mail to me. I look forward to your story.”

I did as I was told and re-submitted the story his way.

No response. On August 9, 2000, I sent a follow-up query by e-mail.

In response that same day, they rejected the story and sent me a copy of their guidelines (which, of course, I’d had from the beginning). The editors felt the horror was effective, but that too little happened on stage, and the story had no supernatural element. They also mentioned that they were very heavily stocked and buying very little.

2. Second Submission: August 11, 2000

There’s a missing reply in my records, but the editor expressed interest and asked for a revision. I revised accordingly (overall tightening and making the ambiguous ending more clear) and re-submitted the story on October 30, 2000.

On November 29, 2000, the editor rejected the story: “Dear Mr. Durbin: I can’t remember if I got back to you about “Under the Tower of Valk,” which most likely means I didn’t. (Sorry about that — my workload is formidable right now.) Anyway, I think the new version is definitely less opaque at the end, but I’ve got to pass on it simply because the story doesn’t need to be fantasy. It could just as well be an historical story. [Yes, Chris, he wrote "an historical story." Phooey!] (In fact, this explains in part my confusion over the ending in the previous draft — I was looking for a fantastic twist or aspect to the conclusion.) I do think it’s a good story, I just can’t use it in _____. You might try it out with ____ _____ at _____ Magazine or with ____ _____ at _____; I think it might fit into one of those magazines better than it does in _____. Meantime, I appreciate the revisions you made at my request and I’m sorry they ultimately didn’t pay off here. I hope I’ll see more from you soon.”

3. Third Submission: December 12, 2000 (I mentioned, of course, that I was submitting the story on the advice of the previous editor.)

No response. I sent a follow-up query by e-mail on April 27, 2001. (It was becoming more acceptable by then to do so.)

In May 2001, I heard that the editor’s significant other had passed away. I sent a letter of condolence. Never heard from the editor again.

4. Fourth Submission: June 4, 2001 (Submitted to the second editor recommended by Editor #2.)

On June 15, 2001, the editor sent me a nice e-mail saying he’d resigned as the editor of that magazine because the publisher could no longer pay him. He told me how to submit it to the right person, but he advised me that the publisher was really not buying now — was in deep financial trouble, etc.

5. Fifth Submission: June 21, 2001

Handwritten rejection on August 29, 2001, scrawled on the back of the bottom third ripped from my cover letter: “Thank you  for submitting your story UNDER THE TOWER OF VALK to ____. Apologies for the delay in responding. It is not for us, I’m afraid. A striking line at the end but a [illegible word] middle passage that failed to convince: not sure the prisoner ever thought like that. Sorry.”

6. Sixth Submission: October 1, 2001

Rejection on January 21, 2002: Form rejection letter with two boxes checked: “We have considered your story, but find that it is not suitable for our publication.” — and then a long one about how they received a number of fairly good stories each month that just didn’t do enough original things, and this was one of those. But there was also a handwritten scrawl (which is generally a good thing to get): “This is more of a vignette, with very little to call it ‘SF’. We’re not sure why you have a flashback positioned between the two ‘present’ scenes. Doesn’t really suit us.”

At this point, it would have made very good sense to retire the story or else overhaul it in a major way. But I was keeping myself busy with other things, and I just wanted to keep trying with this one, which I thought was original and well-done. (I wrote “Under the Tower of Valk” at the same general time as “The Place of Roots.” I thought “Valk” was the stronger story, but “Roots” was snapped up by the first place I sent it — Fantasy & Science Fiction — and you can see what happened with “Valk”!)

7. Seventh Submission: February 4, 2002

Nice personal, handwritten rejection on March 5, 2002: “Dear Frederic, Nicely written piece that nearly makes it for us. In the end, I wasn’t completely won over by the ending. I’ll pass on it, but please do try us again soon.”

8. Eighth Submission: March 14, 2002

No response. Followed up by e-mail, and was asked to re-submit, which I did on July 25, 2002. It was rejected with a form letter in August 2002.

9. Ninth Submission: September 25, 2002

Very nice rejection letter on July 15, 2003: In part — “While we all found the writing excellent and the psychological study a compelling one, we don’t feel it’s suited for ____’s younger readers. In fact, we urge you to send this to an adult publication; it’s excellent writing, but it’s just not suited for our publication.” [Take an important lesson from that: I was getting desperate here, but don't. If you think the story is probably wrong for the magazine, it probably is -- it's better not to waste your time or the editor's.]

10. Tenth Submission: July 25, 2003

The story came back unread with a note that the magazine was on hiatus until sometime in 2004.

11. Eleventh Submission: September 26, 2003

Came back quickly and unread: too short for the anthology I’d submitted it to. [Take another lesson from this: do your homework and follow the rules. Again, I wasted my postage, my time, and an editor's time.]

12. Twelfth Submission: October 10, 2003

Came back with a photocopied form rejection, no note, no signature.

13. Thirteenth Submission: January 29, 2004

The rejection came on March 29, 2004 with handwritten notes from three different editors:

A. “I really liked this story. The realism of the prisoner with no name, his thoughts so different than ours, his complete lack of recognition of what was happening. Your heart attack description was powerful, along with the unnamed prisoner’s complete ignorance of what a chair was or what another person’s arms would really feel like. The commander’s understanding and much too late compassion also moved me.”

B. “The opening was quite catchy. I think you started the story at the perfect place. I was disappointed when you switched to the “He who had no name” part. I had a very difficult time understanding the two stories. I couldn’t quite figure out how they were related. I needed more of a clue to the two parts. The conflict and resolution of the plot was really fuzzy to me.”

C. “This story had some great imagery. The scene where the prisoner escaped was great stuff. All the story really needs is a better plot line. At first I thought it was about the jailer and whether he’d be punished, then the plot suddenly turned to the prisoner and left me hanging. Why is the commander asking who killed the man when it’s obvious a breeze could’ve? Why does the commander suddenly turn to pity? Why is the jailer so afraid of him? What’s his reputation? Other than this your story really was quite good.” [Hee, hee, hee, hee, hee! I know that editor was trying to be kind and helpful with that last line, but isn't it hilarious, in context? "Other than everything about it, your story is quite good!" -- Thanks, I'm so happy to hear that!]

At this point I finally got the picture through my thick skull and did some serious revision of the piece.

14. Fourteenth Submission: April 12, 2004

The rejection came on May 6, 2004: form rejection to “Dear Contributor” saying that it wasn’t quite right for them, and that due to the overwhelming number of submissions they were receiving, the magazine was closing to unsolicited materials.

[Clarification here: "no unsolicited materials" doesn't mean you don't have a chance with that market or that you need an agent. It just means they don't want you to send them a story they haven't asked for. You can send them a query (formatted and worded properly, based on your study of their published guidelines). If they write back and say, "Yes, we want to read the story," then you are sending them a "solicited" submission.]

15. Fifteenth Submission: August 12, 2004

Form rejection came back (postmark illegible): two boxes checked — the story lacked sufficient elements of the dark fantastic, surreal, bizarre, or strange, and the plot offered nothing new or interesting.

16. Sixteenth Submission: September 1, 2004

Undated form rejection came back apologizing for being a form letter and wishing me good luck.

17. Seventeenth Submission: September 18, 2004

Never heard a peep back from that editor . . . and by this point, I was tired of sending follow-ups for this story. I had pretty much come to the realization that other people didn’t like the idea as well as I did. And that’s also a lesson we need to learn, at some point, as writers. Not all our ideas are brilliant. Some, no matter how much we love them, may never really “work” for most other people. (I do think such cases, though, are the exception rather than the rule. Usually a story can be made reader-friendly with the right repairs.)

Don’t misunderstand the moral of this posting: I’m not advocating blind stubbornness. As a more mature writer than I was in 2000, I now know that I want my stories to appeal to most people who read them. You’re never going to please everybody, but if three or four knowledgeable readers have serious reservations — or if they think the story is, well, okay, but they’re clearly not wowed — then I believe it’s time to rethink and rewrite. So in a way, this little chronicle is a mini-course in What Not to Do. Don’t send one tired story around and around and around. That doesn’t mean get discouraged and hide the story in the bottom drawer. It doesn’t mean throw the story away. It means be open to suggestions. It means get feedback; rework the story until people are liking it . . . a lot.

“Under the Tower of Valk” was finally published in Ozment’s House of Twilight, Issue 7, Winter 2007. I know it was published chiefly because the editor is a friend of mine, which gained the story a kind, sympathetic reading. BUT it wasn’t a “mercy publication.” The editor has integrity, and he wouldn’t have published the piece if he hadn’t believed in it. And yes, before it went into print, I revised the story — very heavily.

This has been an extreme example. Most stories don’t get rejected this much, because one of three things usually happens: 1.) They’re good enough that they get accepted right away. 2.) The writers give up and stop submitting them, which is the saddest possibility. Or, 3.) The writers learn from the rejections they’re getting, revise accordingly, and the stories get accepted.

How do my books compare? I think The Threshold of Twilight had about as many rejections as “Under the Tower of Valk” did. I finally decided to stop working on it, since I knew it wasn’t publishable in its present state, and I was no longer the high-school and college student I’d been when I was writing it; there was nothing further I could do to make it publishable without writing an entirely new book — so I turned to writing entirely new books. Dragonfly had also garnered some 12-13 rejections, I think, before it hit the right editor at the right time.

So, the last words: Be open and willing to revise. And don’t give up!

Line-edits are going well here: I’m 75% of the way through the book!

Ghost

August 9, 2009

During this week falls the Japanese festival of Obon. (It’s hard to pin down precisely what day it is — different towns seem to celebrate it at slightly different times, but it’s right around now, anyway.) It’s similar in some ways to Hallowe’en. It’s the time when the spirits of the dead return to visit their earthly homes, so in folk belief, the walls between the worlds are thin, and spirits roam. People go to the cemeteries and clean up the family graves — pulling weeds, sweeping up fallen leaves (so it’s kind of like Memorial Day, too). Buddhists pay special attention to the family altars in their homes, buying special offerings of expensive food to place there for the ancestors. Niigata Festival is going on this week, which always makes for an exciting atmosphere — different events go on every night for several days, including parades with traditional dancers, the extravagant fireworks display (tonight), and the launching of floating lanterns on the Shinano River. The streets are crowded; restaurants are packed at suppertime; pedestrians flock here and there, many wearing kimonos. There is no one specific center for the festival: things happen here and there, though primary focal points are the main shopping streets, the Shinto shrines, and in front of the train station. Flutes are shrilling and drums are pounding. I like to find the time sometime during this week to make a loop through the city on my bicycle after dark — it’s an enchanted world of sorts, particularly when the fireworks are lighting up the sky. (Tonight looks as if it’ll be rainy, though.)

Another midsummer/Obon custom is the telling of ghost stories. I’ve heard that the reasoning behind the timing is so that people can feel cooler in the hottest season. Seriously! People tell creepy stories, and when they’re shivering with chills and goosebumps, they forget the oppressive heat for a few minutes.

This is a time to tip our hats to Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). If you’ve read any traditional Japanese ghost stories, I’m quite sure that what you read came through Hearn’s pen. He was a westerner (born in the Greek Ionian Islands, grew up in Ireland, and moved to the U.S.A. as a young man) who moved to Japan, married a Japanese woman, and spent the end of his life here, collecting and translating and retelling the folklore of long-ago Japan. He became a nationalized citizen and took the name Koizumi Yakumo. It’s famously told that his wife helped him understand some of the stories and cultural concepts by miming or acting them out for him, and he wrote things down accordingly. Have you read “Houichi the Earless”? That’s from Hearn. “The Peony Lantern”? Hearn. “Rokuro-kubi”? Yep. Hearn single-handedly introduced old-time Japanese folklore to the western world. Perhaps his best-known book is Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903). Kwaidan itself means “Weird Tales.” Five stars! Get it — read it — this is the season for it! I’m not responsible if it spooks you and you can’t sleep. But at least you should be able to turn off your air conditioner.

So what better time than this to tell you a ghost story? This relates to the previous post, too, in which I hinted at the possible existence of a ghost in my Illinois house . . . which perhaps is more than a case of wishful thinking.

First, here’s a very true story which may or may not be related to the ghost. This is the one paranormal experience which I can say for sure I’ve had: when I was in elementary school (I don’t remember how far along), one Saturday my mom and I were in the basement of our house looking for something — canning jars or something. [Isn't "canning jars" an oxymoron? If the process is "canning," why use jars?] My dad was at work at our bookstore. Suddenly my mom and I both heard, very distinctly, footsteps crossing the floor above our heads. This was no case of “old houses settling” or ambiguous creaking or popping. It was a clear, unmistakable procession of footfalls, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, tromp, across the main floor of the house. When we went upstairs, we found no one, and we were quite alone in the house. To this day I have no idea what caused that sound, but Mom and I both heard it and agreed that it could be nothing other than footsteps.

Since my Cousin Phil “went public” in his comment on the previous posting, I guess it’s fair game to relate his story here: one summer when he was visiting (again, we were somewhere in elementary school), he and I had gone to bed in my bedroom, and it was pitch black with the darkness one only gets in the country, far from the city lights, with branches rustling and the occasional pack of coyotes yelping. Just after we’d gone to bed and before we were asleep, Phil felt a hand cover his hand and press down. He was too terrified to open his eyes. After a moment, the hand withdrew. There’s no way it could have been a parent, because there was no light in the room to see by (a parent couldn’t have even seen us), and besides, you can hear parents coming a mile off. By the same reasoning, I don’t see how it could have been anyone human. It’s been so long ago that I don’t remember now whether Phil eventually poked me and we whispered about it that night, or whether he waited until the next morning to tell me. But I do know that even today we talk about the incident, and even as men in our forties, we both still sleep with our hands under the covers.

Was our ghost, perhaps, checking to see who this newcomer in our house was, and who was sleeping next to “her” boy? If so, why did none of my other friends who stayed over ever get their hands touched? Did the ghost recognize a family member? Could the touch have been a kind of greeting?

Now I’m going to turn you over to my dad. This is a little essay he wrote in spring 1991:

I have been giving considerable thought lately to why it is that two or more people can be in the same place, and one may see a spectre or U.F.O. WHILE THE OTHER SEES NOTHING. Is it possible that there may be a form of sight that is independent of the eye? I would like to present a personal example to illustrate the thought.

Back in the winter of 1985/86 our only child, our son, was away at college, so it was our custom to close off our bedroom on the colder, northwest corner of our house and sleep in his bedroom on the northeastern corner.

On the night in question, I had retired earlier than my wife. I could hear her in the bathroom, which separated the two bedrooms, bathing, preparing to retire also. As I lay there trying to get warm, I was lying on my right side, which enabled me to see the closet that filled the entire south wall of the bedroom. After a few minutes, I thought I heard my wife cross the small hallway outside of the bedroom and come into the room. I expected her to walk around to the north side of the bed and to get in. Instead, the figure I saw came directly toward me until it almost reached me and then turned to the right and seemingly entered the closet. I was jolted! After a few minutes, my wife actually did come to bed.

As I lay there perplexed, it suddenly came to me that I couldn’t have seen what I thought I had seen! It was my custom, on cold nights, to pull the covers up over my head until I got warm. Therefore, I couldn’t have seen the little old lady, dressed in brown, old-fashioned clothing, enter the closet. Not with my physical eyes.

If I saw her, it must have been through other means. I know I was not dreaming, as I was still too cold to be comfortable at the time.

A footnote to this story is that when my son was still in grade school, he reported seeing the same figure performing the same act. I might also add that the two bedrooms and bath were new additions to our house that were added on after we moved there. Where the little old spectre walks is outside of the original house. Who she is, or what her errand, could be anybody’s guess.

More on his reference to what I saw in a minute, but a few comments here are in order. One, you know how in Dragonfly, the main character is extremely relieved that her Uncle Henry hears the strange sounds from the basement, too? It was a big relief to me as a kid that my parents didn’t try to pretend the world was all well-lighted and quantifiable and sanitary.

Two, that room in Dad’s story, of course, is the same one where Phil felt the hand. Same bed (although in Phil’s incident, I was on the side of the bed toward the closet, and he was back on the “sheltered” side toward the toy shelves). Three, I remember a time many years later when Dad excitedly told me he’d felt a mysterious cold spot right at the door to my bedroom — just outside the room, as I recall. I was away at the time, either in college or in Japan, so I had no way of checking it out.

And four, here’s one more story about my dad which lends even further credence to his report. One summer when I was home, he went to bed (in the other bedroom — the one where he and Mom regularly slept), and Mom and I were still up in the kitchen, talking. A little while after he’d gone to bed, I had something (probably my dirty socks) that I wanted to throw into the laundry basket, which was in Mom and Dad’s room. So as not to disturb Dad, I went into his room without turning on the light (navigating by the light from the bathroom just outside). Very quietly I walked around his bed, put the socks into the basket, went back to the kitchen, and continued talking with my mom.

Well, a few minutes later, Dad came into the kitchen looking totally creeped out — his hair was almost standing on end, like in a cartoon — and he told us very seriously that he’d seen a vision of a young man come into the room and walk around the bed, then walk out again — a young man who looked like me! With embarrassment at having spooked him, I explained that it had been me, that I’d just been in there to put the socks in the basket. He was reluctant to believe me, since he knew I was in the kitchen talking, and he thought the figure he saw had been too quiet to be a real person. [Quite frequently I scare people without intending to because apparently I move quietly. Maybe it's my traces of native American blood -- I'm not sure -- but in both countries, friends of mine have shrieked at the way I glide up behind them, and they turn around and see me. . . . Sorry, sorry!]

But anyway, I tell that story here because Dad’s reactions and ways of recounting his experiences don’t change: unwittingly, I provided a “control” if this were an experiment — I saw how he reacted to an incident that I could explain, and it was just how he reacted to what I couldn’t . . . which seems to suggest that there was something he perceived in the “old lady” sighting that seemed as real to him as when, years later, he saw “the ghost of me.”

But anyway, I no longer very clearly remember the experience of mine that started it all. I would have been in 3rd or 4th grade. The mental picture I have is of lying on my side, facing the closet, and noticing the way the moon was shining brightly through the open window, with the curtains billowing softly in a draft. For just the fraction of an instant, I had the image of a misty, transparent old lady moving in profile beside the bed, between me and the closet — gliding toward the window and angling upward, as if traveling on the moonbeams. But I can’t say for sure now whether I was awake or asleep, or whether I saw an actual shape or some trick of moonlight and/or the relaxing mind.

Finally, many years later, after I’d been in Japan for a long time, I had one possible encounter with the “ghost” (?), although this time it was fully inside a dream. I was home on summer vacation, visiting my parents. I know I was asleep this time, dreaming in my old bed in my old room. It was the type of dream that you’re aware is a dream while you’re having it; those are kind of comforting, like seeing a movie.

In the dream, I was in the kitchen in the middle of the night, and the whole house was dark. I opened the refrigerator, and in the frosty glow from inside it, I met the little old lady. She came from the direction of the living room or kitchenette, from my left. This time, she didn’t look ghost-like at all: she wasn’t transparent, and she was walking with solid feet on the floor. She had dark hair and dark brown clothes. Her face was soft and kind, perhaps a little sad, and she seemed confused.

In the dream I wasn’t alarmed. Rather, I felt like I wanted to help her, so I asked, “Can I help you?  Are you looking for something?”

“My dresses,” she answered, looking forlornly around the kitchen. “I had a whole lot of old dresses here, and I can’t find a one of them.”

“Well, this is the kitchen,” I said. “We have some clothes in the closet. Let’s go look there.” I led the way to my parents’ bedroom [this is all a dream, remember] and opened the closet quietly, since my parents were asleep in bed. “Do any of these look familiar?” I whispered.

She shook her head sadly. “None of these are mine.”

And that was pretty much the end of the dream segment. So . . . you can put the pieces together however you like. Maybe we have a little old ghost who keeps track of the people who come and go, and who lived there in some other era — it’s an old house with a long history. During the year I lived alone there after my parents passed away, I saw no sign of her. One of my aunts asked me how I could possibly stand to stay there by myself after both my parents passed on (at different times) in that house. I just shrugged and said, “If there are ghosts here, they’re ghosts that love me.”

So that’s the news from Japan, during this Obon week.

I should also announce that I finished the rough draft of The Sacred Woods, and as of now I am 26% done with the line-edits! (The larger “chunk-editing” is done.) I’m pretty excited about this book.

Here’s a true story: on the very night I finished the first draft, just as I was writing some of the final words, we had an earthquake! It wasn’t a bad one, but it went on for about 30 seconds, gently shaking the building. (I don’t think there was any serious damage or loss of life this time, even in the mountain villages.) I hope that was a sign that this book will be monumental and Earth-shaking! That was Saturday, August 1, 2009. The book is at around 74,000 words.

Enjoy these wonderful August days and nights! (A student of mine recently asked what are “the dog days of August”? I explained with great relish.)

Earth-Rim Walkers and Those Who Love Them

August 2, 2009

I find it gratifying and delightful that our oldest existing story native to English — the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf — is unabashedly a monster story. Isn’t that wonderful? It’s generally dated to the eighth century, which means it has stood the test of time to reach us well over a thousand years later; we study it in our schools; our scholars analyze it anew in each generation; it has inspired novels, music, and films. And it’s a monster story.

It’s told well, of course. It’s a poem. It uses language that conjures pictures in our heads and brings music to our ears. It has characters we can relate to and it takes us fully into their world; in short, it does everything that good literature is supposed to do. And it’s a monster story! It satisfies the college profs, but it also satisfies the little kid in us who yearns for creatures that pad up to the door of the mead-hall and smash it  asunder.

What does that tell us about fundamental, archetypal storytelling? All those of us who love a good creature tale can hold our heads high. Our kinds of stories were there at the beginning; they’re still there behind it all. Things go bump in the night, and all we who huddle around the fires want to hear about them — from a safe distance, if possible.

The title of this post comes, in part, from a phrase used in Beowulf to describe the monster Grendel. (In John Gardner’s 1971 novel Grendel, told from the monster’s viewpoint, Grendel describes himself as “a shadow-shooter, earth-rim-roamer, walker of the world’s weird wall.” Nice, huh?) The original epic Beowulf emerged at a time when Christianity was spreading among the pagan cultures of Europe, and the poem is a fascinating blend of Christian and pagan elements. [I remember reading another poem from the general era in which Christ was portrayed as a warrior-king, conquering death for His people in the same way that Anglo-Saxon kings conquered enemies. In the poem, Christ leaps up onto the cross, grips it in His brawny arms, and hangs on tight until He has strangled the last breath out of death, thus winning salvation for the thanes He protects. That's a world different from the pale, suffering Christ depicted in later years, but they're both aspects of the work He accomplished.]

In Beowulf, one manifestation of the Christian element is the poet’s painstaking effort to connect Grendel with the Biblical Old Testament. Grendel is descended from Cain, the first murderer. There is also some association with the fallen angels who warred against God and were cast out of Heaven.

Interestingly, there’s a correlation in our own times. Just as the early tellers of Beowulf felt a need to fit the monster into their Christian world-view, I’ve heard of a similar phenomenon going on today in Christian fiction publishing. (I’m talking about books published under the label of “Christian fiction,” not simply books by Christians such as The Hobbit.) A good friend of mine has spoken at length with editors and agents who work in this genre, and apparently the rule in place among many (most?) of them is that any supernatural element a writer uses has to be supportable with Scripture — in other words, if you use a monster, it has to be one from the Bible.

Where this comes into particular play is in vampire fiction. Believe it or not, my friend tells me that certain Christian publishers are actively seeking vampire fiction. It’s just that they require it to “have its theology right.” Really, it’s always been my theory that the older vampire stories in the western canon are inseparable from a Christian understanding. Vampires (traditionally) can’t endure crosses and crucifixes, right? They avoid churches. Why would this be, unless we’re acknowledging the power of God and God’s opposition to evil? (When people ask me what Dragonfly‘s category is, I say “dark fantasy, or maybe Christian horror.” Heh, heh!)

But, as my friend reports it, you can’t say a vampire is a “vampire” in official Christian fiction and leave it at that, because there are no vampires in the Bible. (Well, actually, there may just be a hint of them, but that’s a whole other posting! We can get into that if anyone’s curious.) So you have to say that vampires are demons masquerading as vampires. My response to that is, why can’t a vampire simply be a kind of demon? That’s the way it’s handled in Buffy: vampires are frequently referred to as “demons.” The soul of the human departs from the body at death, and the body is taken over by an evil, demonic spirit who is wholly other than the departed human, yet with an awareness and command of the residual mind and memories of that human. So it’s that human in a way, but without the most important part — the soul — and with something extra and evil added in — the demon. That, to the best of my observation, is the way it works in the Buffyverse, and that model works fine, theologically, for me! So there you have it: on this point, Buffy has its theology straight. (We won’t get into Willow’s religion. . . .)

But back to the creatures that walk in the night (not just vampires) — stories about them have sprung up all across cultures and throughout history. We humans can’t leave them alone. Theories abound as to why. Perhaps these tales grow out of our fear of the dark and the unknown; we give faces and physical forms to our fears, because any monster, no matter how terrible, is somehow easier to deal with than the truly faceless and unknown. Once we know it’s a dragon, we can work on how to defeat it.

Or maybe the stories are one way of dealing with the forces we know about but can’t control: storms . . . enemies . . . unexpected violence . . . illness . . . loss . . . death. Give it a face, let it pursue you for a while through a harrowing tale, and then overcome it. Escape.

Maybe the monsters somehow represent the mystery, power, and vastness of nature itself. This is a recurrent theme in the stories of Algernon Blackwood, particularly “The Wendigo” and “The Willows.” (Even my mom — my mom, who never went out of her way to read any horror — remembered “The Willows” as “the scariest story [she'd] ever read.”)

Or yet again, maybe our monsters are our way of separating out the bad parts of ourselves. The truth is, there’s darkness, greed, and malice inside us — monsters give us scapegoats. They siphon out this badness from inside us, and we can point our fingers at them and drive stakes through their hearts. That certainly may figure into stories of werewolves, which explore the notion that there can be beasts within us that sometimes emerge, terrible and separate from the part of us that is human. That all may be part of it. . . .

Or maybe we know that we really do live in a world where lonely things howl in the desolate places, and to tell their stories is as natural as telling our tales of journeys and discoveries, of courage and love and triumph.

Isn’t it interesting, though, how many of our monsters have been changing over the years? Vampires were once utterly evil, alien, and repulsive. Remember Nosferatu, with his pointed ears, his bald, bulbous head, his rat-like demeanor, prominent fangs, and the stark, twisted shadows he cast on the wall? Then came Bela Lugosi, who still portrayed an evil vampire, but was also charming and seductive. Ditto with Christopher Lee. Decades went by, and then came the Anne Rice vampire books, beginning with Interview with the Vampire, in which vampires were the main characters — we were inside their heads, sympathizing with them, understanding why they did what they did. We rooted for the good ones and hissed at the bad ones. When Joss Whedon gave us the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we had vampires who — under certain conditions — could be noble and heroic.

And now we have an explosion of vampires in the pop culture, and in many instances the good-aligned vampires aren’t even sorry to be vampires — no one is sorry . . . they altruistically find ways to feed without harming humans, they help people, they’re beautiful and romantic, women and men swoon over them, and they’ve essentially become like Tolkien’s Elves: the species that we’d be if we were a little better — if our limitations and infirmities were taken away.

Mary Shelley undoubtedly helped to bring about this shift in the role of the monster. In her 1818 novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, the monster, though he behaves monstrously, is the victim; his creator is the true monster, the source of the harm and tragedy.  So, too, in the latest retelling of Beowulf — the 2007 film written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary — the monster is both terrifying and greatly to be pitied; he is not so much ravenous as he is tormented. (And whoever thought back in the eighth century that Grendel’s mother would one day look like that — like Angelina Jolie covered in gold, wearing high-heeled feet?! Oh, the roles of monsters are a-changin’ . . . but perhaps not so much. There have always been sphinxes and lamias and succubi, so I guess even with gold, seductive Grendel’s mother, there’s no new thing under the sun. Or under the wan moon.)

Sooooo . . . something wicked this way comes, and if you’d prefer not to talk about it, then don’t. Turn back while you still can! But does anyone care to tell about the earth-rim walkers that particularly chilled and delighted you when you were small?

I’ll start us off with a few. First of all, my nextdoor neighbor Chris and I were convinced that there was a Bigfoot-like monster haunting the creek behind our field. (Or if we weren’t absolutely convinced, we worked hard to convince ourselves.) Since every monster needs a name that sounds both innocuously childlike and yet sinister and creepier the more you think about it, we called him “Funnyface.” We knew that he came up through the cornfield at night — we knew, because now and then we’d find a cornstalk that had been knocked down . . . by something obviously big and heavy. Any oddly-shaped depression in the field’s dirt became a partial footprint . . . any strange sound from the woods became his yowl. We found some scratch-marks high in a tree that we declared had been made by his claws. And the clincher — the final proof of his existence — came when we tied a piece of lettuce (was there some ham, too?) by a string from a tree limb — high enough from the ground, in our reasoning, that no small animal could get at it. And when we came back a day later, the lettuce was gone!

I won’t embarrass Chris with our other demons here, but I’d love to hear his recollections of them if he can be goaded into telling about them. (If not, I’ll understand!)

But also, a group of friends and I had a kind of club that gathered, during recess, under the apple trees at the far edge of the schoolyard. While other boys were playing “Kick That Ball” (that’s what they called it!), we sat under those trees and talked breathlessly in hushed voices about the monsters we had personally seen. And we saw them often! Talk about Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World! In our childhood, monsters were always popping out of hedges and shambling along roadsides, just barely visible in the twilight.

I told about Funnyface, of course. He didn’t just stay in the cornfield, either. Sometimes he lurked in the barn and watched Chris and me playing outside. Every now and then, we’d get an eerie feeling that we shouldn’t go into the barn. Those were the times when he was there, so we kept to the yard and peeked at the barn through weeds or over the edges of roofs.

I also had an Alien that poked his helmeted head above the multiflora rose bushes in the northwest corner of the yard — and always in the last gleam of twilight. He wore dark shades like sunglasses and had a long, hooked nose and protruding chin. I think his skin was blue.

And I had an Old Lady Ghost who is a separate topic unto herself — let’s save her for another time.

G. lived in a house where the yard backed against the railroad tracks. So his childhood was always full of the roars and rattles of passing trains, the mournful whistles in the night. His monster was a humanoid thing with long hair sprouting from its shoulders. G. always saw it only from the back (which we thought was just plain creepy!), and in the gathering dusk, the thing would jump up and down in place, away down the tracks. Up and down, up and down, in some bizarre monster ritual or dance, until it got too dark to see it anymore.

R. had a Deer Man — a furtive, tawny, human-like figure with big antlers on the top of its head. When R. looked out into his moonlit yard just before he went to bed, the Deer Man would climb over the fence, run lightly across the grass, looking around nervously, and then climb over the opposite fence and vanish into the night.

H. told of a giant frog named Old Smiley that inhabited the marshy creek behind his parents’ trailer court. H. would creep down there among the weeds and see Old Smiley sometimes, who was as big as a coffee table. Smiley would look at H. with his enormous round eyes, say “RIVET!” and hop into the water with a tremendous splash. What made this monster truly great was H.’s imitation of him. H. was a gangly kid, all bony elbows and knees, and his mom used to dump so much tonic on his hair that we called him “Syrup Head.” H. would show us how Old Smiley jumped: he’d crouch low against the playground and then uncoil himself, shouting “RIVET!”, and bound into the air. We laughed at how funny it looked. And then we’d look at one another and go “Ooo” in subdued voices, thinking about how it would be no laughing matter down in the weeds and the dark and the mud, with only a few lights from the trailer court off in the distance.

Finally, S. had a disembodied eyeball called Big Red who prowled in the bushes behind S.’s house. S. would part the bush-branches at times, gaze into the depths, and Big Red would be staring back at him.

Ah, Earth-Rim Walkers! Gotta love ‘em!

Tell us your stories! Tell us, tell us!


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