Monthly Archives: April 2015

Genre Warrior: Interview with Ed Grabianowski

This week’s featured author is Ed Grabianowski. Like Lee Forman who I interviewed in March, Ed is a competitor in David Wellington’s Fear Project. And quite a formidable competitor at that. After weeks of writers duking it out, he’s one of the final four left in the competition. Between Fear Project challenges, Ed was kind enough to answer a few of my questions. His responses shine a light on the day-to-day rigmarole of being a writer as well as why it’s such a coveted profession.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Ed GrabianowskiI remember always enjoying writing as a kid, but as far as a career, I was never sure how you made a living at it. But then I sort of blundered into some newspaper jobs and some freelancing gigs, and I’ve been a professional freelance writer for more than ten years now.

I actually read more fantasy than horror. I’ve been a massive Tolkien fan my entire life. In more contemporary terms, I am a huge fan of Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series, and I could talk your ear off about how much I love China Miéville.

I grew up on Stephen King, like a lot of horror writers, and I’ve been on a King kick lately, working my way through some his earlier novels and anthologies. The blog got me started down that path. I love Poppy Z. Brite’s early works, and all the pulp greats, Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and I love Leigh Brackett and CL Moore.

How did you get involved in The Fear Project, and what has been the most interesting part of the experience so far?

It turned up in my Twitter feed at some point, then I lost the link and had to track it down. I submitted my entry just before I left for a New Year’s Eve party, right under the deadline. Found out I made the cut a few weeks later.

There are two things I’ve found interesting — one is how incredibly valuable the process of creating and refining a story every weekend has been. Just doing it week in, week out, there’s no time for bullshit. You just write, and then you revise, and then revise some more. The tight word limits have helped there too. You’re just putting that story to the grindstone, making sure every single word is pulling its weight. Which is how all fiction should be, but man, flash fiction really drives the point home. For instance, if this interview was a Fear Project story, I’d definitely go back and fix that mixed metaphor I laid down a few seconds ago.

The other interesting thing is how many of the authors on the Fear Project are becoming friends through social media. We’re competing, but we’ve all been really supportive of each other the whole way. We’ve been concocting rough plans to maybe get together at a convention at some point this year, which would be really cool.

My personal favorite of your pieces for the competition was “Dolls.” It was among the best modern horror stories I’ve read in years. Tell me about the process behind that one.

DollsI’d been reading John J. Adams’ Apocalypse Tryptych, a set of three anthologies he edited featuring stories set before, during, and after the apocalypse. The first book is called The End is Nigh. Anyway, I knew I wanted a type of apocalypse I hadn’t read about before. I had this weird idea that, if you consider all the toy stores, all the warehouses, all the dolls in people’s homes, they probably outnumber humans. Creepy Doll stories are usually personal, claustrophobic stories, so I thought it would be fun to open it up, have them overrun the world.

Most weeks I write two stories for the Fear Project, then see which one is working better (and I’ve ended up using two of the “b-sides” for later changes). But “Dolls” was the only story I wrote that week, and it required the least revising. It just worked for me right out of the gate. I’m glad to hear you liked it so much!

Which Fear Project prompt has been your favorite? Which one was the most challenging?

I definitely enjoyed the apocalypse challenge. Just a big fan of apocalypse stories in general. The “taste of fear” challenge was also a lot of fun, although it was difficult since I was traveling that weekend and didn’t have a lot of time to work on it. But I had so much fun with the Victorian epistolary form and a pretty gross ghoul.

The horror/comedy one was really hard for me. It’s not that I don’t think they belong together, because the contrast can amplify both aspects. But it’s so hard to just sit down and go, “OK, time to be funny.” I’ve got to credit my brother for suggesting the stand-up serial killer idea. That was a week where I wrote two stories, and I stuck them in front of some people to see which they liked better. I still like the other story better, even though I won that week. Good thing I trusted my friends! And I can save the other story for another day.

In what direction would you like to see your writing career go? More short stories? Novels? Nonfiction? All of the above?

I’ll always write non-fiction, if only because it’s steady work that helps pay the bills. But I’d love to stop being a non-fiction writer who also does some fiction, and become a fiction writer who does non-fiction on the side. And that’s on me. I’ve got to carve out that place for myself in the world. I think there are some horror film scripts congealing in my brain too, but…that’s a whole other place to carve out.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

I think all of us competing in the Fear Project want it to be a gateway to bigger and better things, whether we win or not. With that in mind I figured I’d better have a bigger and better thing ready when someone comes along and says, “What else ya got?” So I’m working on a supernatural horror novel about a U.S. tank crew, set during the Cold War. I guess the elevator pitch would be, “Fury meets Pan’s Labyrinth.”

Any links you’d like to share?

Well, my own site is like that old car in the garage that doesn’t run — I’ll fix it one of these days. But I like to hang out and talk about horror on Twitter, so that’s the best place to find me:

Big thanks to Ed for being part of this week’s author spotlight, and we wish him luck as he competes in the Fear Project!

Happy reading!

For the Love of Language: Tingo and Other Cool Words

I love words. Since I’m a writer, this probably sounds obvious. However, it’s more than simply enjoying little squiggly lines that come together to form thoughts and speech. I love reading and creating (or at least trying to create) fun wordplay and unusual metaphors and similes. Alliteration is practically my best friend, and from Lord Byron to Shirley Jackson, striking imagery in poetry and prose inspires me again and again. But those aren’t the only ways language can be fun and surprising. Another aspect of literature that has long fascinated me is how many certain words from other languages have no equivalent in English. Embracing my German roots, I’ve always harbored a particular fondness for the ridiculous ‘schadenfreude’ or the reveling in the misfortunes of others. German nincompoops notwithstanding, there are plenty of other cool words out there that don’t get their due in the English language.Tingo
Last year, I came across an article on the Huffington Post that appealed to my inner word lover: 28 Genius Depictions of Words with No Direct English Translation. Artist Anjana Iyer crafted a series of pictures that highlights those elusive words that the English-speaking world is missing out on. A couple of standouts are Backpfeifengesicht, German for “a face badly in need of a fist” and Shlimazl, Yiddish for “a chronically  unlucky person.”

Tingo Anjana IyerAll of Iyer’s artwork is unbelievably lush and gorgeous. But one word struck me more than the rest: ‘tingo,’ a concept meaning “to gradually steal all the possessions out of a neighbor’s house by borrowing and not returning.” While the “split screen” of this piece has Iyer’s characteristic whimsy, the horror writer in me couldn’t help but envision something a bit more malevolent. In under a minute, I had designed an entire story concept revolving around this heretofore unknown word.

Earlier this month, the Indiana Voice Journal published my story, which is titled simply, “Tingo.” It follows a woman named April who must deal with a neighbor that asks to borrow more than the proverbial cup of sugar—she wants April’s whole life, starting with the paintings on the wall and ending with her husband and son. It’s a definite psychological horror story with tinges of the supernatural, one that’s short and not-so-sweet, so check it out in the current issue of Indiana Voice Journal if you feel so inclined.

While preparing this blog, I couldn’t help but feel that it wouldn’t be complete without including Anjana Iyer’s original depiction of tingo. After all, that was where I found my initial inspiration. So I contacted Ms. Iyer, and she was gracious enough to give me permission to use her illustration. Can I just admit I basically squealed like a total fan girl when an artist whose work I’d been admiring from afar responded to me? Yes, I will admit that.

So please visit Ms. Iyer’s site here. She’s an incredible artist, and everyone should know her work. Plus, I can guarantee you’ll learn a few new words along the way. If nothing else, her artistry will provide you the most enjoyable vocabulary lesson of your life. And from a word lover like me, that’s really saying something.

Happy reading!

First image copyright of Bill Homan. Second image copyright of Anjana Iyer.

Fantasy Maven: An Interview with Jill Marcotte

For this week’s author spotlight, it is my pleasure to introduce the fabulous Jill Marcotte. I recently discovered Jill’s work through the Women in Horror Issue of The Sirens Call. I was impressed with her command of language as well as her ability to establish a haunting mood in very few words. Naturally, I was eager to feature her on my blog. Earlier this month, Jill was kind enough to answer my questions about her fiction writing process. Her responses are as revealing as they are enthusiastic.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Jill MarcotteI was one of those creepy stair goblin kids who always wanted to be a writer.  Of course, I also wanted to be an astronaut, an exotic dancer, a firefighter, an assassin, an Animorph, and a nun, but the writing stuck.  Now I get to bypass all the training and working out and trespassing in construction sites looking for downed alien spacecraft, and just write about all those people instead.  It’s really the best of all possible worlds.

That said, I’ve still got a loooong way to go, and what is an aspirant without her idols?  I’ve always admired Terry Brooks for his prolificness, and Brandon Sanderson for his ability to blow my mind.  Shakespeare, for his sass and dirty jokes.  I love the crazy creepy worlds of Neil Gaiman and China Miéville.  And I will always hold a special place in my heart for the writers of the classics: Bram Stoker, Henry James, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, and lots of others.  This is hard to narrow down!  There’s so much to love out there.

You write in a variety of genres, including horror, science fiction, fantasy, and even children’s books. Do you have a favorite genre, or do you enjoy the flexibility of writing so many different styles?

I love having a genre for every mood, and when I get my hot little hands on some delicious new concept, there’s no denying that siren song.  And I dearly love to twist and tweak tropes from one genre into another.  There are very few genres that I haven’t dabbled in at least once, although I definitely have a better feel for some than others.

Epic fantasy, however, is the ex-husband I keep remarrying.  I just can’t keep away from it for long.  I might get distracted by a shiny new idea, and I might work on other stuff for weeks, even months, but I always come back.  Love me some epic fantasy.

Since Alaska is your current home, does the often harsh climate there ever impact your story ideas, or have you become so accustomed to the weather that you don’t even think about it anymore?

Most definitely it impacts me.  In fact, I was just thinking this morning about how I usually write in season—that is, the things I write are very often set in the season I am currently living in.  For me, in real life and in my writing, nature is practically a living creature.  It moves and breathes and loves and kills.  It’s wild and shifting and everywhere.  I cannot fathom living in a place wherein it doesn’t matter if it’s summer or winter.  Where I live, that can be a temperature swing of a hundred degrees F or more.

I love Alaska.  It is indescribably glorious year round, from the stark, brutal beauty of an endless night to the bright, bursting exuberance of summer, where every growing thing is desperate to get twelve months of life and activity into three months beneath an unsetting sun.  The funny thing about Alaska is that it’s too extreme to ever get used to.  Summer Alaska and Winter Alaska are two different places, with spring and fall just a hiccup in between.

As a member of your local NaNoWriMo, what advice do you have for other writers interested in getting involved? Also, what’s the most important thing you’ve learned from the NaNoWriMo experience so far?

Sirens Call Issue 19My best advice for getting involved, in just about anything, is to dive in and do it!  The great thing about NaNo is that there’s something for everyone.  Are you a social butterfly delighted to meet other writers?  Go to write-ins, show up at planning meetings, check in with your accountability buddies.  You’d rather hide in your closet and spend that time writing?  That’s fine, too.  Just sign up, make your goal, and hit the road running.  And if you’re like me and fall somewhere in between, there’s plenty of online engagement available so you can egg on your writing buddies from the safety of your Batman print snuggie.

NaNoWriMo is, admittedly, kind of stupid.  I mean, who blocks off one month to write an entire novel?  FOR FUN?  Well, I do, and I love stupidity!  You know what else I love?  Accountability.  And creativity.  And neat little graphics that show my progress.  But I think the most important thing I’ve gleaned from NaNoWriMo so far is that drafting is just that- drafting.  It’s not a finished product and it doesn’t matter if it’s utter poop.  Keep.  Moving.  Before NaNo, I spent years editing the same one book.  Over and over and over.  NaNoWriMo jolted me out of the editing rut, and that has been of incredible value.  Now I know how to draft and how to edit, and how to hold the two apart.  And even more important, how to move on.

Out of the stories you’ve written, do you have a personal favorite piece?

I have an epic fantasy series that I am absurdly in love with.  I daydream about these places and make up grammar rules for their dead languages.  I make physical copies of the games they play and have been known to call my children by characters’ names.  If I were to suddenly be transported to this world, I would have about twenty minutes to be absolutely elated before something horrible killed me.

As far as published works go, I believe I am currently proudest of my most recent one, The League of Draven, about a girl who learns the hard way to believe in fairies.  Check it out in Issue 19 of The Sirens Call eZine.

What upcoming projects are you working on?

Last year, I drafted several new novels, so this year I’m focusing on cleaning them up.  I especially look forward to polishing The Sad, Sad Tale of Dead Timmy, a supernatural tragicomedy about a prince who dies, and then the real trouble begins.

Any links you’d like to share?
Don’t mind if I do!  I’m big into literary camaraderie and can attribute a lot of my successes to digital high fives (and butt kicks) from other writers.  If you’re just starting out, having writing buds can make a world of difference–as sounding boards, as beta readers, as cheerleaders/drill sergeants, etc.  Here are just a few of the fertile fields of friends:

NaNoWriMo–If you’re still on the fence, consider this a loving shove.
Camp NaNoWriMo— For those of you who can’t get enough of a good thing.

Twitter — This is hands down the best place I’ve found for surrounding myself with fantastic writers from all walks of life.

Local writing groups- I’m involved in a couple writing groups, as well as just people I like to informally write with.  (Okay, person. HI, MARY!)  Join a group in your neighborhood, or start your own!

And of course, everyone is always welcome to pop over to my blog to say hello and read the doofy things I say.  I’d love to meet you!

Major thanks to Jill Marcotte for this fun interview!

Happy reading!

Pass the Arsenic: The Best Weird Families of Literature

Last week, my story, “The September Ceremony,” made its debut in Danse Macabre’s Rendezvous issue. This autumnal tale follows a macabre family that resides away from the world in a merrily decrepit mansion. Naturally, a bevy of supernatural shenanigans ensue.

The September Ceremony

For all you fans of weird fiction, you already know I had quite the hallowed footsteps to follow. Literature has no shortage of oddball families that revel in the otherworldly. This made the task of creating my magically-inclined mother and her three in-training daughters both exciting and daunting. From Poe to Bradbury, I found myself drawing again and again from the works of the greats.

So here are my picks for the four best weird families of literature. Beware bats in the belfry, dragons in the attic, and for the good of humanity, bring your own sugar. You can’t trust that secret ingredient.

The Addams Family
Since Morticia, Gomez and pals mostly appeared in comics, calling them a literary family might be a bit of a stretch. Then again, they often graced the pages of the New Yorker in its heyday, and if that’s not literary, then nothing is. This gang of oddballs remains the go-to when it comes to bizarre familial antics. I adore the Addams family so much that I pay homage to them in “The September Ceremony”: the three daughters are named Carolyn, Anjelica, and Bebe after the actresses who famously played Morticia on television, film, and stage respectively.

The Elliott Family
Interestingly, at the same time Charles Addams was creating his offbeat literary family, pal Ray Bradbury was crafting a motley crew of his own. Debuting in the short story, “Homecoming,” the Elliott Family have an undaunted sense of belonging all while not quite fitting in with the world at large. Over the course of his prolific career, Bradbury crafted numerous related tales, including “Uncle Einar.” Eventually, the Elliott Family received their own novel, From the Dust Returned, a “fix-up” of short stories that went on to become Bradbury’s only bestselling book.

The Blackwoods
At the opening of Shirley Jackson’s seminal We Have Always Lived in the Castle, most members of the eccentric Blackwood family are already dead. But that doesn’t mean a sense of family isn’t pivotal to this hauntingly lovely tale. Sisters Merricat and Constance Blackwood along with their Uncle Julian must band together if they’re going to survive the dangers and prejudices of the outside world. I’ve heard this glorious novel called “a paean to agoraphobia,” and as someone who happily lives in the country on a secluded property, I couldn’t agree more.

The Ushers
Edgar Allan Poe took sibling rivalry to a whole new level in his celebrated short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Roderick and Madeline Usher are quite the ill-fated duo, but that doesn’t stop them from cementing a strange legacy all their own. Like the other families on this list, the gothic estate on which the Ushers reside becomes a character unto itself, the hallways and curtains and corners speaking to the reader just as eloquently as every line of dialogue. Dull, dark, and soundless day or not, the eponymous home is one place every weird fiction fan would love to visit.

Who’s your favorite weird literary family? Let me know in the comments!

Happy reading!

Halloween in April: Interview with J. Tonzelli

For this week’s author spotlight, I’ve got a special treat for all you fans of fall. My writer today is J. Tonzelli. He’s the scribe of End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween, a book that might have the coolest creepy cover ever. But this author has even more to offer than one (completely awesome) collection of short stories, and he was kind enough to share his experiences, inspirations, and advice for other horror and fantasy writers out there. Halloween in April indeed.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

J. Tonzelli AuthorI’ve been writing since I was fairly young, so I guess I’ve always had the itch to do it. When I was young, I read mostly horror-centric stuff: R.L. Stine, and the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books. I read In a Dark Dark Room over and over. I was really infatuated by this notion that you could be in a room by yourself reading only someone’s words, and that someone still had the power to scare you. This wasn’t someone sneaking up behind you and screaming, “boo!” or a scary movie on the television in front of you. It was just words, and they were terrifying, and I loved that.

I matriculated from Stine to Stephen King in the summer between fifth and sixth grade, when I read IT, but then eventually I began reading all genres both fiction and non-fiction. My go-to authors are Ray Bradbury, Dennis Lehane, Per Petterson, and Norman Partridge. I love David Sedaris. I’m also really digging Jonathan L. Howard’s Johannes Cabal series right now.

Halloween plays a major role in your fiction. What is your earliest Halloween memory, and do you think that formative experience shaped your love for the holiday?

I actually share this memory in the foreword for “The End of Summer,” but one of my earliest Halloween memories was being puked on during a Halloween party while I was in elementary school. Some kind of flu or nasty bug had been spreading slowly around the school that month and making all the kids sick. I guess it was her turn. Ironically, she was dressed as a witch, and I was dressed as the devil. Talk about mutiny!

The End of SummerTo offer up a more serious answer, I think it’s because I’d always been into horror even at a young age, which sometimes made me feel like an outcast. I didn’t share the same interests a lot of the other kids did – sports or video games, for instance; wrestling was big at that time, but I wasn’t interested. So I sometimes felt isolated because of it. I’d hide the covers of books I was reading so the other kids couldn’t see them. If I was watching a horror movie at home, and my parents or brother came into the room, I’d turn it off real quick. I hated being judged or ridiculed for my interests. But Halloween was that one time of year when everyone was into that kind of stuff, so it always felt like a safe day where I could sort of live vicariously through all of these people having a good time wearing the scary mask and watching the scary movie and not feeling weird for enjoying it. I sometimes felt like a horror cheerleader, trying to make my friends realize that this kind of stuff could be fun all year. It hardly ever worked – my schtick probably got old pretty fast. Some of that carries over into The House on Creep Street.

Your book, The End of Summer: Thirteen Tales of Halloween, was released in 2013. What was the most rewarding part of writing a short story collection of Halloween stories?

The most rewarding aspect was simply seeing that book though to the end, as my main goal was to see if I could even do it – not necessarily put together a collection of writing, which is its own reward, but to see if I could keep it contained to a common theme (that being Halloween) and explore its myths and folklore in different ways. Originally, “The End of Summer wasn’t necessarily Halloween-themed. I wasn’t even so much trying to stick with a horror theme. I was just writing whatever concept I thought would interest me as a reader. At that point, there wasn’t a “book” in my mind – I just wanted to write. But as I wrote, I noticed that I was subconsciously either setting the story on Halloween, or injecting into the story some kind of Halloween-like imagery or setting. Once I became cognizant of that, it seemed to me that I had to follow through with this impulse to see if I could concoct an entire collection of stories all relating to Halloween. For better or worse, I did!

Your most recent novel, The House on Creep Street, was a collaboration between you and author Chris Evangelista. How is the creative process different when writing with someone else?

The House on Creep StreetI’ve known Chris for fifteen years now, and we’ve been sharing writing projects together for almost that entire time – just in different ways, and mostly for fun. I’m convinced we were fraternal twins somehow separated at birth. We both share a lot of the same interests and sensibilities, the same weird sense of humor, and we both approach writing in the same way. It’s scary how in-sync we can be when working on something together; sometimes it gets to the point where we can literally finish each other’s sentence, and I don’t mean on the page, but out loud when we’re outlining every new adventure. When we start a new novel together, we’re both in step right from the start about the story we want to tell and the themes we want to convey. We know how we want to tell that story, and more importantly, how we don’t want to tell it. We go by the pen name of The Blood Brothers for these books, and a large reason behind that, besides that wonderfully corny pun of a name, is that we just genuinely feel like brothers.

“The House on Creep Street” is the first in a series called “Fright Friends Adventures,” which are horror adventure stories for younger readers, highly influenced by stuff like the Goosebumps books, the show “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and movies like The Monster Squad and The Goonies. We grew up devouring that kind of stuff, and we felt that those kinds of fun, adventurous morality tales were ripe for another exploration. Our goal was to keep them as timeless and classic as possible.

Out of your published works so far, do you have a personal favorite piece?

I love a lot of what I’ve published, and not because I would ever dream of flat-out stating they’re excellent – that’s for the reader to decide – but because I feel like everything out there so far with my name attached to it reflects me, and my personality and interests and passions, in some way. Even if there’s something of mine I look back on with a bittersweet feeling of hesitation or regret, that book or story still reflects who I was, and the place where I was in my life, at that time. Every story invokes recollections of, “Oh, I wrote this when I’d found out so-and-so had passed away” or “I wrote this while I was still going through that break-up,” etc. Everything I’ve written is the equivalent of a photo album. If I were to go back and read my stuff, I could tell you exactly what I was going through at the time I wrote it.

To offer a specific favorite, I love the opener of “The End of Summer,” a story called “Stingy Jack,” because that wry, weird kind of humor really defines my personality. I also love “The House on Creep Street” based strictly on its origin, which were childhood writings of mine that I’d forgotten about and subsequently rediscovered several years ago. As a kid, I’d been fascinated by the idea of nighttime adventures, with my real childhood friends by my side, so I had written all of these stories where we encountered something weird or supernatural in our neighborhood. They were terrible, obviously, since I was twelve or so when I’d written them, but they were also charming in a way. It seemed like a fun concept to strip down and rebuild, which we did, and which led to “Fright Friends Adventures.”

What upcoming projects are you working on?

Blood BrothersI keep going back and forth on a solo project I’ve been working on for the last year or so – my take on the historical mash-up. I originally abandoned the concept several months ago for fear I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but now it won’t leave me alone. It’s getting to the point that it’s almost screaming in my ears for me to keep trying, so I’ll likely get back to it sometime soon.

Chris and I are currently doing a rewrite on the second book in our “Fright Friends Adventures” series that a publisher is excited to release. It’s called “Beware the Monstrous Manther!” and it’s about Joey, the main character in the series, and his creepy new neighbor across the street, who Joey suspects of kidnapping his neighborhood’s pet population for dastardly reasons.

I’m also pretty consistently contributing to the film site Cut Print Film, where I write reviews, interview filmmakers, and do write-ups on genre titles that have a certain cult appeal. I’ve been doing that for about six months now and it’s been pretty rewarding. I’ve gotten to talk with filmmakers I really admire and it’s nice to collaborate with a huge group of like-minded film enthusiasts. Plus I get to see movies for free, and who wouldn’t love that?

Big thanks to J. Tonzelli for being part of this week’s author spotlight. Be sure to check out his main website where he features several free short stories (and who can resist that?). You can also visit the official site for “Fright Friends Adventures,” which has resources for both parents and kids. And for film buffs, you won’t want to miss his contributions to Cut Print Film. Calling all cult classics.

Happy reading, and happy early Halloween! 

Monsters, Elephants, & Hemingway: Cobbling Together Odd Influences

Last week, Flashes in the Dark reprinted my story, “Snowfall in the Morning,” a dark fantasy tale that originally appeared in Thirteen Myna Birds this past winter. This was among my first pieces of flash fiction, and it remains one of my personal favorites.
Snowfall in the Morning

Every story is a way for an author to create a fingerprint. Specifically, the behind-the-scenes process, including inspiration, is unlike every other story that comes before or after (or that’s what all writers hope anyway). With “Snowfall in the Morning,” I wanted to move away from on-the-page violence, opting instead to keep the horror elements (mostly) unspoken. The implied can be much more powerful than the overt, especially in literature. In fact, the piece is so ambiguous that the reader has to decide exactly what the unseen monsters are. Zombies and vampires are the common guesses, but the creatures could be anything your imagination chooses.

My influence for the ambiguity in “Snowfall” came from arguably the most impressively vague short story of all time: Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” I had read the tale of Jig and the American for the fourth (or fifth or thousandth) time just before starting the first draft of my story. Again and again, I’m profoundly impressed with how Hemingway communicates so much with so few words. His prose is sparse and direct yet overflows with meaning and subtext. Anytime my fiction is getting too wordy, I think of Hemingway and immediately cut the nearest adverb. And even though my first drafts are sometimes a little bloated, I like to think that by employing the Hemingway method, my fiction ends up a little leaner by publication.

Strange bedfellows, Hemingway and monsters, but I suppose you could say the same about Jane Austen and zombies, and that turned out swell. Still, to horror writers, looking to Hemingway for genre inspiration might seem random. To non-horror writers, looking to Hemingway for genre inspiration might seem blasphemous. So why use a story so grounded in reality to inspire a story so grounded in the fantastical?

On Writing HorrorIn the book, On Writing Horror: A Handbook by the Horror Writers Association, I came across some of the best writing advice I’ve ever found: read outside your genre. It can be easy to get swept up with writers who are published in the magazines and journals you most admire, but looking elsewhere can help cultivate fresh ideas that you might not otherwise envision if you stay in charted territory. So when I’m drafting a new tale, I’m as likely to be thinking of Ray Bradbury, Shirley Jackson, and Richard Matheson as I am of Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and Sherman Alexie. At the very least, it ensures the planning process never gets boring. Plus, as I found with “Snowfall in the Morning,” you never know where the inspiration of non-genre masters might take you. It can be a fun ride exploring new paths you never thought you’d take, and at the end of the day, that’s exactly what writing should be: fun.

So who are you favorite inspirations? Let me know in the comments below!

Happy reading!

A Master Class with Gerri Leen

This week’s interview is with an author whose work I’ve admired from afar for months. Gerri Leen is an accomplished genre writer who’s been widely published in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals. I first came across her work last summer, and her talent and prolific output astounded me. Gerri has a lot to teach all of us up-and-coming fiction writers. At the very least, the advice she offers throughout this interview helped me feel a little less alone when it comes to the sometimes lonely world of writing, editing, acceptances, and the dreaded rejections.

A few icebreakers to start: when did you first decide to become a writer, and who are some of your favorite authors?

Gerri LeenI had opportunities to pursue writing when I was younger, and writing seemed to come easily (at least as far as school projects were concerned—I never tried to get published back then other than one poetry submission to Omni that I never heard back on), but it never seemed a viable way to make a living—and I was all about supporting myself back then.

So the ability was there but not much experience and definitely not a lot of drive. For years I wrote poetry to quench the thirst to write. But after my mother died in 1998, I quit writing poetry for a while, and I found that there were stories that needed to come out. I started writing fanfiction in 1999 to scratch that itch, and sent in my first professional submission to the Star Trek Strange New Worlds contest in 2004—and got in on my first try. And then didn’t make it into the next volume or make a sale for original fiction for quite a while after that, so I had to really examine why I was doing it. Once I decided I was writing for myself, I could keep going. And things have progressed since. I started writing poetry again, and now I have some poems published. When I was in my teens and twenties, I would say that I would write when I was old. Well, I’m sure the me of back then would think that I’m old now, so prophecy fulfilled.

Favorite authors really run the gamut. I tend to read mainstream fiction, young adult (both speculative and non) and speculative fic. I am sort of weird in that I don’t tend to like series—I much prefer a stand-alone book with an actual ending—so that sort of leaves out a lot of fantasy and YA.   In mainstream fiction, I adore Stewart O’Nan, Gillian Flynn (way before Gone Girl), Armistead Maupin, Doug Coupland, Max Barry, Ron Rash, the thrillers of Louisa May Alcott, and Matt Ruff (although some of his are borderline speculative). In speculative, I love Connie Willis, Joan Vinge, Jane Yolen, Daryl Gregory, Scott Westerfeld, Robert Heinlein, Anne McCaffrey, Richard Matheson, and Ray Bradbury.

You craft a variety of stories, including horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Do you prefer writing in one genre above and beyond the others, or do you love them all equally?

Sirens Call Issue 19I tend toward mythology-related things. That would probably be my favorite: any time I can rework a myth (or a fairy tale or a legend).   I often don’t get dark enough to nudge my stories out of dark fantasy and into horror, so it’s fun to see the ones I have managed to push over the cliff get accepted. Just when I think I’m not really a sci-fi writer, the muse will pull something new out of her bag of tricks and I realize that I still am. I’m sort of a commitment phobe, so I love being able to go back and forth among all these genres (and even mainstream) and try new things. I recently started writing romances under the pen name Kim Strattford. I also do fiction with romance under my own name, but the stories tend to be dark or bittersweet. For the real romance stories, it seemed wise to create a pseudonym that readers could count on for the happy endings they crave (and that the genre demands).

With hundreds of published stories over the last few years, you have an enviable output as a writer. How do you keep yourself focused and avoid burnout?

Thank you! I’ve been doing this for ten years now, so I guess I’m in it for the long haul. But if I feel burnt out or unfocused, I don’t write. Sometimes I just don’t feel like writing. Sometimes I’ve got things going on in life that sort of take over the brain so I don’t have the energy to write—and I often feel like the muse is diverted to handle the crisis, guess she’s an all-purpose inspirer. I have frequent severe migraines and sometimes they take me off the playing field (other times, writing through them is the only thing that makes them tolerable—although the stories don’t always make a whole lot of sense when I read them the next day). I’m pretty chill when it comes to any kind of schedule. If I’m meant to be writing, I’ll write. If not, I’ll do something else.Bottom line, this should be fun. If it’s not fun, take a break till it is. At least for me, when the story is there, it’s going to flow. But if it’s not there, no amount of me hitting keys is going to get it there. I’ve learned not to force it.

It’s also fun to have projects that are really close to your heart to keep your interest level up. I have a collection coming out from Inkstained Succubus Press that will feature genetically enhanced racehorses that manage their own careers. I have written in this world before and they offered me the chance to do a novel-sized collection of interconnected shorts, and since I’m an avid follower of horse racing, I jumped at the chance. I also am editing a collection of speculative companion/service animal stories for Hadley Rille Books that will benefit an animal rescue group I support in Northern Virginia. Health issues on several fronts have delayed this book, but we are ready to get going on it again. I think it’s a really fun group of stories and poems, and it was oh so enlightening getting to go through the slush pile. I have a much greater appreciation for why things get rejected and how it may not be any reflection on quality, just a case of a story not fitting the theme, or being too much like another story that fits better for whatever reason (although an astounding number of people don’t read the guidelines—I was a little shocked). I think having done a stint as editor on a slush pile, I am much more copacetic when I get rejected.

If forced to choose, which part of the writing process is your favorite: developing characters, establishing setting, or crafting dialogue?

Anthology 1 Gerri LeenDialogue, for sure. There are times when I’m writing, if a scene is in my head and I just want to get it captured, I’ll just do the dialogue and work out the connective tissue later. I think I would be very happy as a screenwriter, because dialogue is the part that’s always come naturally to me (this kind of makes sense since a friend and I used to do plays of fairy tales in elementary school for the younger classes—sometimes making up the thing as we went along). I’ve had to work on the texture part, of setting the scene and bringing it alive as the character sees it. Writing poetry before I did much prose can at times be a problem. In poetry, every word counts, so I am often fighting my own tendency to be spare or choppy. But I’m learning.

For character development, I think a lot of that often comes through in the dialogue as much as the inner monologue and action moments, so I see that as part and parcel of the dialogue process. I always go back to shows like Joss Whedon’s. If you hear the dialogue, you can pretty much tell who would have said the line. So much of what made his characters who they were was how they said things. I’m not sure I’m there yet, but it’s what I’d strive for: to be able to achieve such distinct voices for characters. Probably easier to do, though, in a novel than in shorts, and so far I’ve mostly concentrated on shorts and novelettes.

All writers hear the word ‘no’ a lot during their careers. How do you cope with rejection and keep submitting?

Ares Magazine Gerri LeenRejections never stop sucking. That’s the reality. But I think the trick is to have a lot of stories circulating (and be working on other things) and don’t obsess over things that are rejected—and get them right back out to a new market. And take crit with a grain of salt. If you hear the same thing more than once from different editors, then yes, it may be something that needs fixing. But to edit every time before you send out again: that way lies madness.

That said, it’s not always easy to just brush off the constant rejections. When it gets really bad—one month this year I got six rejections in one day—I often take a break from original stuff and write fanfiction (which is where I really learned to write). I just disappear into worlds I adore, get some immediate love back for the stories, and feel…energized. Sometimes I focus on poetry for a while. Not that it doesn’t get rejected, too, but the process for writing it is a lot easier for me and seems to use a slightly different part of my brain. Or sometimes I just take a break completely from writing. Binge-watch a show (you can always take something away whether it’s how they worked in a plot twist or a clever way of introducing something), watch movies, play games on my iPad, or just read. I’m not a “write every day no matter what” type of writer. I write when the muse either gives me scenes ahead or I get the feeling a story is imminent. I was once told I lack discipline since I won’t do the “butt in chair everyday” method, but I think I’ve done all right doing it my way.

Out of your published works so far, do you have a personal favorite piece?

Oh, man, that’s a hard one. My favorite is probably “Disruption of Destiny,” which appeared in the launch issue of Ares Magazine. It was actually prompted by a movie called The Safety of Objects. But I have a story that’s looking for a home called “One Way” that will give “Disruption of Destiny” a run for its money as my favorite once it gets published. It is a sci-fi story written in a bit of a reverse timeline. And the muse gave me the story backwards so I discovered the character the same way the reader will, with each new bit revealing that you really don’t understand what’s going on at all.

Huge thanks to Gerri for taking the time to answer my questions. Check out both of her author websites here and here as well as her Facebook and Twitter pages. 

Happy reading!