Apocalypt-Us

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image via fotosearch.com

 

I'm almost finished writing an historical novel that takes place roughly in the year 1000 AD. During my research, I turned up stories of people (okay, most were superstitious, un-read, unwashed, and unsophisticated, even by our neo-superstitious standards) selling all they had, rending their clothes, and piling into churches for mass on the last eve of 999. What the stories fail to tell me is how these people felt and reacted when, after another day or two, the sun still came up in the east, the birds still sang, and hungry stomachs still growled. Probably a collective "Whew!" and back to the wheat fields and sheep-tending.

Today, street preachers rave about Judgment Day, New Agers stubbornly cling to ideas of an apocalypse (the world as we know it ends in 2012, or haven't you heard? Just ask any Mayan you know about their calendar), even after Y2K failed to produce a computer armageddon and a 2008 world-wide economic meltdown, courtesy of greedy bankers (well, greed all around) and two bankrupting wars that have gone absolutely nowhere, we're still here.

As I peruse books and book reviews I keep coming across a new sub-genre (I'm not sure if it should be called fantasy or not) referred to as post-armageddon. Boy, this is stubbornness in spades.

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image via girlsguidetotheapocalypse.blogspot.com

Writers follow trends – some beginning in the real world – but most are following the trends of writers like Cormac McCarthy (read his The Road?) and Stephen King (check out his The Stand). There are others, perhaps less well known, that you can scroll through here.

The sensibility of those novels – at least the ones I've read – is that we were born to screw up, that the earth is a problematic place, anyway. But marbled into these fatalistic tropes is another view of humanity – its persevering spirit, that something good within us prevails at the end of the day. This is our paradox, the paradox of our stories, over and over again, throughout centuries. One inescapable fact looms, since life imitates art, and vice versa: if we're going to have an apocalype, it'll be because we choose to.

Earth is really a pretty cool place. Did I mention the birds tweeting? Rain on the roof? A fun day at the beach? That delectable toast and coffee for breakfast?

I want this manic-depressive sensibility of ours to go away. Really. I do. But then, what would there be to write about?

 

See Bob's web site here.

Cowboying It Up and Community

I follow local and national politics. My interest there isn't a fascination with the political process and idolizing politicians; instead it's more in the vein of not being able to take your eyes off a car wreck or a bar fight. 

One of the things being toyed with indirectly within the U.S.'s political arena these days is – in the grander sense – individualism versus community. This has been a social conundrum at least as far back as the ancient Greek culture, and it isn't a zero sum issue. That is, we're never going to actually live out the U.S. myth of the rugged individual making his/her on way in the world without any help from any dang person (what I call"cowboying" – if I have the liberty to invent a new verb). By the same token, we're never going to be completely communitarian in the "it takes a village" mode; we cranky Yanks just won't stand for over-much of that.

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image via girlswritenow.org

And this applies to writers in ways we've never had to face before. We writers are most at ease by ourselves, in front of the computer screen, inventing people and worlds. But nowadays we're being forced by changes in the publishing biz to step away from our invented worlds and into the "slime" of marketing, promotion, and meeting and greeting. 

My purpose in this post isn't to guide my fellow writers through this sloppy maze, but to present a couple of general things that may at first seem obstacles, but things you need to face in order to get your writing out there – things that involve both individual and collective decisions.

Publishing: I have a traditional, small press publisher for a book of short stories due out soon. While the writing has been all mine, I was originally asked (if possible, and in order to secure a publishing contract) to add more stories than my original intent in order to meet the publisher's criteria for book length. We negotiated that, and arrived at a mutually agreed upon length that didn't, from the writer's viewpoint, add fluff to the collection. More recently I've been asked by the publisher, since I'm more intimately connected to these stories than anyone else, to write a draft of the cover copy, a ten-word cover blurb, and to assist in the cover design as a whole. We accomplished that – together. 

Whether you go the same route, or self-pub, you're at least going to have to make similar choices, decide among similar considerations.

Promotion: Writers are being urged all the time to develop web sites, and many do, I among them. One question I often hear from writers, though, is : "I have a web site, but what's it supposed to do for me?" Again, the answers are unique, but it has to do with developing a "platform," as the pub biz calls it; i.e., developing an audience for yourself and your work. A web site – or a blog – can do that. And so can social media. And so, of course, can book readings and signings, discussions with book groups and the like. At this point, you have to decide how you can best promote yourself and your writing – and then reach out for the necessary help.

There's a lot of help in all these areas, but you have to look for it: search engine optimization (SEO) to promote your web site or blog. Understanding social media advertising. Hiring a publicist to line up book signings, to obtain reviews. And that's just for starters.

So you see? You can cowboy it up to a degree, but in today's business environment, you can't do justice to your writing by trying to negotiate the writing, publishing and marketing maze all by yourself. Reality means being of both minds.

Parsing the Horror Genre in Torn Realities

Torn Realities, A Horror Anthology

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I remember Buckminster Fuller writing that 95% of scientifically proven reality is beyond the realm of our human sensory tools. Even though we know this, our emotional – and large doses of our rational – makeup is hopelessly tied to our senses. Then, logic would tell us, if we were to have some sort of bleed-through into our senses from that other, over-large part of reality, we would become, well, uncomfortable. 

And this is what stories of the horror genre, such as those of Torn Realities, give us – visitations from beyond sensory norms. These stories inject outside-of-reality bleed-throughs into historical settings, into fantasy imaginings, into scientific what-ifs. Setting such stories almost invariably brings a solitary person into a secluded place, or a place in which buried things should be left alone, even into a sense of science beyond our human ability to handle. Mood is set through writerly devices that shine a light on the creepier aspects of such settings, virtually guaranteeing the reader will go to sleep with the lights on.

Not all such widely varied stories in an anthology will resonate with every reader. And, of course, I have favorites among the nineteen stories in this collection, which has been published by Eric Beebe’s PostMortem Press and edited by Paul Anderson

Horror icon Clive Barker’s Rawhide Rex dresses the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf in different clothes and delves into his victims’ lives, even into Rawhide’s psyche.  

James Dorr’s The Calm adds weather lore to the French and Indian War era’s backdrop within a lost village. 

Jeff Suess’ Hallowed Ground gives us the Civil War’s horror amplified by mystery and eerie presences that shadow the bodies of the dead.

 

Parenthetically, my story in this collection, The Offering, was an attempt to artistically recreate the mood I experienced of a long-ago visit to Mexico’s Yucatan, the throaty breathing of its jungle life, the guarded friendliness of the native Mayans, the almost creepy serenity of its ancient architecture. As such, it hangs by a thread in relevance to this genre, a genre I have little experience of. Still, Torn Realities is a formidable intro into this genre – whether you’re a long-time fan of horror, or, like me, a newbie.

 

And for you writers: I’ve never had an editor work with me in such close proximity, craft-wise, as did Paul Anderson. He knew what he wanted from the story in order to have it fit this collection, and he was most patient in shepherding me in that direction. 

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 See Bob's Web Site here.

 

Fitzgerald Inventing His Way Toward Perfection

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  Imagesimage via sc.edu

 

Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise was given a tentative thumbs-down by the literati of the day, most not understanding what Fitzgerald was trying to accomplish. And even today it’s not a particularly easy read. From the standpoint of early twenty-first century, though, the book seems a precursor to postmodern literature, with its disjointed narrative, its social and political references, and above all, its overwhelming self-awareness. The book has been called a critique of humanity’s attraction to glamour, but that hardly seems the complete story.

Amory Blaine is a well-to-do, bratty WASP – egoistic, handsome, with a glib mouth. Underlying all this is an insecurity that begins to show its teeth during Amory’s Princeton days, as his mum dies and leaves him with nothing of value. He turns to girls for succor, but he quickly discovers, in the way of early twentieth-century life in the U.S., that his looks, his disarming way, have little truck without a serious jingle in his pocket. 

Thus Amory enters into a series of promising but ultimately unfulfilling romances, joins the army during World War I, and returns to life as a menial ad copy writer. His conscience during this time is personified in a Catholic priest, Thayer Darcy, who has had a dalliance with Amory’s mum in days past. But Amory can’t be corralled by faith and religion. He does, though, offer to sacrifice himself before the law in order to save a friend’s reputation. Still, even this turns to spoiled milk. 

In the book’s final pages, Fitzgerald offers a clumsy, summarizing motif: Amory is given a ride by two well-off, conservative men, and they enter into an argument concerning what today would be Milton Friedman’s argument for capitalism. I was stunned as I read these pages – how appropriate that argument seems to today’s bare-knuckled conflicts over the same ideological ground!

Fitzgerald’s writing here is brilliant in places, but his structure seems of the ad hoc variety.  As with the argument mentioned above, many of the book’s themes and situations are handled clumsily or are dropped unfinished as the author moves on to other ideas. At its core it’s a bildungsroman. But there’s also Amory’s fall from grace, which establishes his reinvention, something that was a religio-literary staple of the day. In the end, Fitzgerald leaves Amory disillusioned but hopeful. In the final paragraphs, Amory sums up thusly:

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed….

He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.

“I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.”

 

Still, that ending is a good start for a literary career as this supremely talented writer began his slow, awkward climb toward a never-achieved literary perfection.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

 See Bob's web site here

 

The Millions : 47 Endings Can’t Ruin A Great Novel: Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms

You'll have to be a BIG! Hemingway fan to want to read this one. Still, it might help you writers out there to feel more at home with your own false starts and, um, bleepy titles.

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Whenever I work on a piece of writing more than a few days, I create a “dump file” where I can store my many false starts, failed scenes, and tin-eared snatches of dialogue in case I change my mind and decide to use them anyway. On longer projects, I also create a fresh file each month so I can track the progress of the project and raid old drafts for bits I wrote better the first time. This digital version of the overstuffed file cabinet has saved me more times than I care to count, but it is increasingly clear to me that if I ever have the misfortune to get famous, I will need to delete all these old files and throw my hard drive in a lake somewhere. If I don’t, and a work of mine achieves lasting value, then my children and grandchildren, abetted by scholars and editors with dollar signs in their eyes, may well spend the decades after my death boring the hell out of my readers with all my failed early drafts.

via www.themillions.com

 

 See Bob's web site here

Myth and Violence

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image via 9-1-1magazine.com

 

This post has little to do with my usual blog topics; instead it piggy-backs on a post my good friend and fellow writer David Frauenfelder wrote for his blog, Breakfast With Pandora, two days ago concerning the tragedy in Aurora, Colorado. You can find more about Dave and this post here

This post of Dave's is so rich in meaning and understanding (something we need truckloads of these days) that I couldn't help but talk it over as we waited for the rain clouds to lift from over the Durham Bulls this weekend (they didn't), and I promised this hopefully complementary post. 

After the anger passes at the person who perpetrated this crime (a person I refuse to name), we're going to sit down and wonder what brought about this horrible event.

Toward that end, I largely agree with Dave, and with Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, who both write that we as a society have all but lost what LaSalle calls the Female Principle, i.e., the ability to internalize experience and to summon values from it. When we simply react to events, this isn't the positive catharsis that comes from internalization (the inward search for meaning and understanding) that allows us not only to move on but to correct those things in the society, so that we can move on. Not just stick our heads in the sand.

It should be clear by now that we have something of a national neurosis, a mental affliction, that can and occasionally does erupt in a single person. What can we say, then, about both such a person and the national psyche?

First, it seems to be part of the human condition that one group of "heroes," if we stick to Frauenfelder's topic of myth, has always been there for us to perhaps commit acts of violence so that the rest of us can live in peace and serenity. As police do. As soldiers do. As Firemen do. As Cory Booker recently did in New Jersey (look it up).

But we've "democratized" violence to the point that it pervades the world stage, leaving none of us untouched. If you don't believe this, think about the computer games, the fascination with weapons, the urge to act violently to everything in our society, even toward others driving on our highways. And such violence is present even in speech- political and artistic –  even in conversations on Facebook.

So if some insecure and misguided soul wants to be noticed? He/she can be damned sure that an act of unspeakable violence will do what donations to the poor, helping a fallen elderly person, or sacrificing a given person's wants to the needs of children and family, won't do to get him/her noticed these days.

The second thing is built on the first, really. Our mythic heroes in story and on stage these days must react with commensurate violence, or we'll say this "hero" isn't one at all, but a milquetoast wimp. Think about that, what that says about the rest of us! 

And this is a fairly recent position to put our violence-stemming heroes in. To take a pop-culture example (the most obvious example to make here, I suspect), think back to the 1950s and 60s and Andy Griffith. This may seem an asinine comparison, but it's really not. We were all more accommodating and understanding back then (at least superficially), less addicted to the showmanship of violence, which meant Andy could stanch whatever upset his town underwent with a cagey move, a few wise words, or a very gentle, non-violent threat. 

This is not to say that we should relish that era, when so many things in the national psyche were repressed or ignored, because we won't – and shouldn't – go back that way again. But we do need to bring a whole lot more civility to the social arena, realize that understanding and accommodation, even in these tumultuous times of ours, are the only things that can make our society easier to live within.

One more thing:

Dave Frauenfelder is a talented writer and reviewer. Seek out his stuff, and urge him to publish that trove of work he's sitting on.

Can’t Beat Harper’s

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My slowly emerging view of Harper's Magazine is a good one. While NEWSWEEK has turned into an unholy marriage of Cosmo and People, and Atlantic Monthly seems headed toward being a blog-like argue-fest, Harper's mixes in-depth reportage (are you listening, Tina Brown?), whimsical asides, decent book reviews, fiction and memoir. Can't beat that.

 

The August 2012 issue includes a memoir, "Breeds of America," by William Melvin Kelley, which speaks presciently enough to the multulturalism that's been present in the U.S. for ages. Kelley's story goes back a few decades to a time when his own multicultural presence (he calls himself Creole) had him simplistically labeled black – with all the double standards that suggests.

And the issue's fiction piece, "Jonas Chan," by Hanna Pylvainen, builds on the same theme: a kid of Chinese heritage trying to fit in with other melting pot types. I'm usually not wild about ethnic fiction, since it's oft-times published in mags only to showcase fiction by emerging minority writers, and the stories seem to have questionable literary merit. In this case, the story is well built, its voice consistent, and done in the memoir style that Harper's seems to prefer. 

As I said, you can't beat it.