I was attending an author event at the Tattered Cover bookstore a couple of months ago. Not even really browsing, I had in hand the book I had come for, but nevertheless my gaze wandered across one of the bookseller recommendation shelves. For no discernible reason, one cover caught my eye. It was a pen and ink drawing of an elder sister embracing the younger, and the book was We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson.
In Everytown, USA, some kid gets bullied on the playground or around the schoolyard. Seeking hierarchy, some sense of superiority, assertion of dominance over somebody, the bully picks a target, probably without even knowing why for sure. It could be the victim’s face, gait, clothes, build, voice, anything that gets under the bully’s skin, because by god they need to be higher on the food chain than somebody. They fight, or abuse, or sneer, or dump barrels of toxic waste into the social waters around the victim. The victim is beaten down periodically, until they fight back.
That’s the conventional wisdom. A bully who gets knocked down, who gets his comeuppance, runs off crying and must find another target.
If you have a writing career that ultimately spans decades, it will inevitably fluctuate with highs and lows—and so will the exultation and despair that follows such fluctuations. Contracts and literary agents may come and go. Publishing companies can dissolve and your rights lost in a morass of legalese and bankruptcy. The “Mid-List Author Death Spiral,” as it’s called, is a phenomenon well-known to several of my author acquaintances. And this is beyond the usual barrage of rejections we all have to cope with. Unless you’re prepared to go quietly into that good night, you will have to find ways to bounce back from setbacks like these—or else you won’t.
If you’re of a certain age in the U.S., you were raised with Westerns. John Ford and Sergio Leone filled cinemas and TV screens with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, the dust of cattle drives, the thunder of cavalry, guns, and the war whoops of Indians. By the time of my childhood, Western films were in their declining years, covering ground so well-trodden the genre itself had become cliché, a collection of easily recognizable and increasingly tired tropes.
However, the genre never quite made it to the grave. Since the Western film’s heyday, we’ve been graced with some spectacularly good fare: Tombstone, Unforgiven, Tarantino’s Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, the remake of True Grit, the HBO series Deadwood, and Dances with Wolves.
If you’ve read my “Cautionary Tales for Writers” over on the left hand page of this blog, you know a bit of history about my early forays into writing and publishing.
The first novel I published was an epic fantasy called The Ivory Star, back in 1997. For almost twenty years, it languished on my hard drive, untouched. Then Wattpad came along, and it seemed like the perfect venue to introduce my early work to a new generation of readers. So I commissioned a snazzy new cover and put the book out there to see what would happen.
Lo and behold, The Ivory Star is featured on Wattpad this week! As hundreds of new readers fly through the chapters, leave comments, and vote on chapters they like, I have found it gratifying in ways I didn’t expect.
You can read the entire book for free right here. Enjoy this bit of fantasy adventure from my distant literary past.
The creative well runs dry. The heart is as desiccated and desolate as a dusty Old West street, because you’re certain your Work in Progress is utter cowflop. You shout into the endless black void, listening mournfully for a few spurious, uncertain echoes. Where can writers go when they need to pour some fire back into their souls? The same place that got us into writing in the first place: Books.
At various points in your life, you’ll encounter books that are like a blessed bowl of warm chicken soup on a wintry day when your nose is crammed with snot and you ache in every bone. You’ll encounter books like the smooth, sweet burn of good whiskey that warms you from the inside. You’ll encounter books like a smart kick in the buttocks from that hot personal trainer.
Allow me to be so bold as to suggest some books for writers that have made an impact on me.
Something new has appeared in the wondrous–and sometimes helpful–oddities of the internet. A means whereby creative folks like myself can gather their most ardent fans to chip in a few bucks every time the creator does something cool. It’s a new form of crowdfunding called Patreon.
I’ve been hankering for a few months to try it, but first I had to do some soul-searching, get some life-changes squared away, and move to another country two hemispheres away from my old digs in Colorado. I’ll be living in New Zealand until mid-2016.
I’ve done two successful Kickstarters for the last two books in my Ronin Trilogy. Each time, I raised $5700-6000 to fund the publication of those novels. I was incredibly gratified, and the result was the completion of a series of which I’m immensely proud.
Patreon, however, is a whole new ballgame for creative projects. Unlike Kickstarter, where you pledge to support a project before it’s finished, Patreon allows you to give a little tip to the creator after something is created. You get to become a patron of the arts and a supporter of the makers you love.
Sword of the Ronin meets nine other historical eras in this fabulous e-book bundle from Story Bundle: The Historical Fiction Bundle.
From Story Bundle’s website:
“History is made up of stories, and those stories are vast, and varied beyond compare. The Historical Fiction Bundle comprises a total of ten terrific titles by top-notch authors, together representing exactly this breadth and variety of experience. These stories blend real-world historical settings with romance, adventure, fantasy and mystery to bring you whole worlds of fun! You’ll visit ancient Egypt, the Americas, the Caribbean, Great Britain and Japan; you’ll meet pirates and warriors, witches and princesses, detectives, time-travelers and more.”
Pay what you like. Support yours truly and six other indie authors and support a worthy charity: Girls Write Now.
That sounds like win-win-win to me.
As a writer who gravitates to the dark and desolate and desperate, I often inject a syringe full of horror into my stories. “You got your horror in my fantasy!” “Oh, yeah? You got your fantasy in my horror!”
This month, I’m going to talk about a technique that the best horror writers and filmmakers use masterfully—leaving things off-screen.
So before this wild assertion spurs someone to argue with me, someone whose tastes prefer everything upfront and in one’s face, let me say that I enjoy strategic splatter.
The human mind—especially that of a hard-core reader—possesses prodigious powers of imagination. I was reminded of this when I was writing Sword of the Ronin, the second book of my historical fantasy trilogy. A number of beta readers expressed some difficulty at getting through a scene where the hero, who has been tortured and imprisoned for some time, has no choice but to witness the execution of a fellow prisoner. My wife read that scene and told me that it was one of the most excruciating things she has ever read. She was quite surprised when I pointed out to her that everything in that scene had happened off-screen, so she went back and looked at it again. None of what happens in that scene is visible. The protagonist only hears things and sees indirect evidence of what’s happening. Nevertheless, it is a scene that sticks with a great many readers.
H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” His essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is where this quote appears, and is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wants to write scary stuff. He used this technique over and over again. So many of his most memorable beasties are terrifying because we can’t quite see them. In “The Dunwich Horror,” the creature is invisible. Ghosts scare us worst when we know they’re there, but we can’t see them. The monster in the shadows. The strange sounds in the night. The serial killer hiding among us. The guy next door keeping someone chained up in his basement.
You don’t want to use the clichéd, cheap jump from the cat jumping out the cupboard. You want the kind of tension that lets the audience keep squirming in their seats.
The bottom line is that we’re more afraid of what we can’t see than what we can. In the aftermath of a great horror book or movie, we remember the fear we felt during the experience, but don’t find the monster as scary anymore—because we’ve seen it.
Should you keep everything off-screen? You certainly can. It’s an artistic choice; some audiences prefer their horror a bit more sedate. But you don’t have to.
Allow me to point toward one of the most effective horror movies of recent years, The Descent, which tells the story of six women exploring an unmapped cave. This movie is an incredible mix of both on-screen and off-screen horror. First of all, it’s in a cave, so unless the flashlights are on, the screen is pitch black. On top of the incredibly claustrophobic environment (it was often a wonder to me how this was filmed), tension is built by half-glimpsed somethings at the edge of the light, or by strange sounds in pitch blackness. Throughout much of the film the horror is barely glimpsed, suggested, implied. But then at a certain point, the flood-gates open, the gloves come off, and we are drenched in blood, ichor, and violence. It was one of those movies that’s so effective at what it set out to do that I don’t think I want to see it again.
Like all tools—from paintbrushes to tack hammers to prepositional phrases—it’s the artist’s craft that decides when to use it to achieve the desired effect. Sometimes you need the splatter, the dripping fangs, all eight of the giant spider’s luminous eyes in hairy close-up. But those are often best used as part of the Big Reveal, the Climax, the Gruesome Finale. Sometimes, you need the shadows, the invisible threat, the last glimpse of a foot being dragged around a corner, the knife that wasn’t where you left it, the sound of something slithering through underbrush, to crank up the tension. Prime the audience with unrelenting tension so that the Big Reveal produces an audible gasp.
It’s strange how a writing career propagates in waves. Just by timing and random chance, I have a whole raft of short stories coming out now and in the near future.
- “The Metal of a Man” appears in this month’s Electric Spec magazine. What does an aging cyborg do when he knows that parts of his body will outlive him?
- “Aisa’s Beast” appearing in Legends of the Dragon, Vol. 1. (Trade paperback edition available soon.) A strange, subterranean creature is drawn to a gaudy pageant of strange mortals called Dragon Con, where he is enslaved by a cruel Faerie princess.
- “For the Honor of a Geisha” came out in an anthology called Tokyo Yakuza. (Available either as short story or whole anthology.) A yakuza cyborg must transport priceless data through the territory of an enemy gang. Little does he know the lengths they will go to steal it.
- “The Sharpest Horn” appearing in A Game of Horns. A young woman struggling with reality and mental illness is imprisoned by her parents, until a blood-red unicorn comes to her “rescue.” A Game of Horns is a charity anthology benefiting the Don Hodge Memorial Scholarship Fund.
- Apex Magazine. A guilt-ridden school-girl despairs the suicide of her friend, until she discovers that her friend still exists, but in a terrible new form.
- “The Girl with No Name” will appear in an upcoming issue of New Myths magazine. A Filipina immigrant girl in modern-day Japan uncovers the supernatural truth behind a gang of thieves, and they discover her as well.
- “Branches of Infinity” will appear in Weird and Wondrous Work from World Weaver Press. A linguist studies the strange effects of an alien phrasebook that could literally change the whole world.
- “Where the Devil Resides,” a dreadpunk novella, will appear in the next issue of Alembical by Paper Golem Press. In an alternate-history American South ravaged by a Civil War that went on far too-long, a Yankee minister must save his daughter from the clutches of the notorious swamp rat, “Smilin'” Jack Welch. What he discovers in the Everglades takes him farther down the river of human darkness than he thought possible.
- “Demon-touched” will appear in March, 2016, in Fiction River: Visions of the Apocalypse. In a world gone mad, a lone neuroscientist struggles to find the cure for a plague of demon-possession.
- “Death Bunnies of Toxic Island” will appear in May, 2016, in Fiction River: Last Stand. Haley loves everything about bunnies. When her bunny is horribly slain right in front of her, she must go on a quest to assuage her shattered well-being. And where to? An island full of cute, fluffy bunnies–that won’t be just bunnies for much longer…
- “The Ballad of Osmosis McGuire” will appear in July, 2016, in Fiction River: Superpowers. A high-school student discovers that he has the ability to steal strength, intelligence, and dexterity from other people. But then a girl walks straight out of his dreams and things go terribly awry.
- “Redline”, a story that Kristine Kathryn Rusch described “an incredible piece of writing, a story that will stick with you”, will be appearing in November, 2016, in Fiction River: Pulse Pounders–Adrenaline. Three rednecks, one ex-Navy SEAL, one pit bull, and two thundering muscle cars in a desperate chase to the end of the line.
I am terribly remiss. My neglect for this blog is something I often lament. I never post here often enough. I harangue myself with guilt. And I still post here but rarely.
Because I’m writing for elsewheres, other blogs, and I only have so much time. Yes, I’m well aware that the sense of this is … wonky.
So I thought I would share here links to stuff that I’ve been writing for the Fictorians, a group of fellow writers that talks often about the writing life. I hope you’ll check some of these out, as well as the work of the other fantastic authors on the Fictorians page.
The Critique Group Waltz — Is Yours in Step? – August 26, 2015
Mining the Pain – July 15, 2015
Convention Selling Tips – June 09, 2015
A Killer Combo for Writers: Dropbox + Scrivener – May 19, 2015
Examinations and Bindings – February 12, 2015
Cracking the Whip, but Not Too Hard – December 29, 2014
The Literary Marriage — Agent and Author – October 17, 2014
Three Aliens Walk into a Writers Retreat – April 17, 2014
Relax, and Dial Back the Desperation – September 13, 2013
A climax sixteen years in the making…
Coming in e-book formats on June 24th, 2015. (Print versions coming in late July.)
Available for pre-order now on:
A CLASH OF HONOR, LOVE, AND AMBITION
In thirteenth-century Japan, the ronin Ken’ishi’s fondest wish has been granted—he has found service with a powerful samurai lord.
But the underworld crime boss known as Green Tiger lurks in the shadows of Lord Tsunetomo’s retinue, and Ken’ishi’s honor is tested when learns his new master is married to Kazuko, the only woman he has ever loved. His unknown lineage holds dangerous secrets that could destroy him, and only his sword, the magical relic called Silver Crane, holds the key to his past…and his future.
With enemies, temptation, and strife assailing him on all sides, Ken’ishi’s very soul falls into jeopardy—even as Khubilai Khan’s Mongol hordes plot their next attack.
Can Ken’ishi defeat Green Tiger, defend his homeland from the barbarian invaders, and remain true to his heart, his lord, and his honor?
If you love romance, intrigue and action on an epic scale, don’t miss this stunning climax to the Ronin Trilogy.
“When you actively watch out for new writers with potential, every so often you’re pleasantly surprised by one who has simply Got It, whose work is ready to push up to the next level. Travis Heermann has simply Got It.” – James A. Owen, author of Here, There Be Dragons
“Lovely details, an honorable character, and great action. Travis Heermann’s Spirit of the Ronin is a rich and entertaining story.” – Kevin J. Anderson, New York Times bestselling author of Blood of the Cosmos, the Jedi Academy Trilogy, and The Last Days of Krypton