Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Some Thoughts About Literary Fiction

For nine years I served as mentor in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction program, and I’ve mentored a number of writers one on one who’ve gone on to graduate programs in creative writing. These mentees usually go into programs where creative writing classes are taught by literary writers who have, at best, a limited tolerance for genre writing or, at worst, who outright loath it. These mentees become extremely frustrated, and they reach out to me for advice. “Why can’t I make my professors happy?” And if they try to write the kind of literary fiction their professors want, they ask, “Why can’t I write this stuff?” A former mentee emailed me recently to ask these questions, and I thought I’d share my response here, edited to remove any indication of my mentee’s identity.


I was lucky during my college career. None of my professors at Wright State University ever said a negative word about my writing genre fiction. Maybe it would've been different if I'd been in an MFA program instead of an MA program. I've heard from dozens of people over the years that professors who write literary fiction often view all genre fiction as worthless, although they have a difficult time explaining why. I think these professors just parrot what they were told when they were students, the same way high school English teachers tell their students never to use "you" in their writing, without ever knowing why. I'm sorry you have to deal with that. Try not to let it get you down. Your thesis advisor's view is a limited one. Ignore his views on genre fiction and learn whatever you can from him. The only arbiter of what makes good fiction should be you, since you're the one writing it.

In terms of how literary fiction differs from genre fiction, I've thought a lot about that over the years. I don't write literary fiction. Twenty years or so ago, I wrote a handful of literary stories, but editors rejected them all, so I shelved them. So take my thoughts with at least a grain of salt! My advice to anyone who wants to write literary fiction is to leave out anything remotely resembling genre elements. Just tell a story about real people doing real things in the real world. Literary fiction focuses on character -- getting to know a character, watching character be revealed, watching character be transformed in some small but profound way. Despite this focus, literary fiction tends toward emotional restraint and intellectual distance. It's a paradox. Literary fiction deals with the emotional life of humans but does so at arm's length. I sometimes wonder if that's because it's written by intellectuals who struggle to understand their emotional sides. At times it almost seems as if they're naturalists writing about animals they're trying to understand. A couple quotes I've heard about literary fiction (I can't remember the sources): Literary fiction is about ordinary things happening to extraordinary people. (I take this to mean that the characters tend to be more intelligent and perceptive than normal; small events can move them and transform them profoundly.) A second quote: If you want to write a literary story, write a first-person, present-tense story then cut off the beginning and ending. That's usually meant as a joke, but I think there's some truth to it. Literary fiction eschews what its practitioners see as anything approaching what they view as simplistic, childish, pop-culture storytelling, and the basic linear narrative pattern – character with a goal takes steps to meet the goal, encounters obstacles along the way, works to overcome those obstacles, the obstacles get harder forcing the character to work harder until a crisis point arises, then climax and falling action – is too formulaic for them. I think a pattern for a literary story might be better described as a spiral. At the center is the conflict/emotional core/theme of the story. The main character circles around this core, drawing ever closer to it bit by it, until the character is forced to confront it. The moment of confrontation leads to an epiphany which changes the character in a profound way. This change is often not depicted “on screen” and is left up to the reader to ponder after the story is finished. Raymond Carver's "Cathedral" is a good example of this spiral technique. If you haven't read it, Google it. You can find it free online.

Now, something weird about the Literary Story Spiral is that the same technique is often used in horror fiction, except that what lies as the center of the spiral is the Terrible Thing (whatever it may be).  Shirley Jackson's "The Summer People" is an excellent example of this. The epiphany happens for the audience as much or more than it does for the characters, and horror stories often end in a suspended moment, when the characters and readers are left in a situation that isn't resolved on the page, which is only resolved – or at least pondered over – by readers. So the Horror Story Spiral is almost the same as the Literary Story Spiral. The big differences are what lies at the center of each spiral, and the intellectual distance and restraint of literary fiction, and the deliberate attempt to evoke emotion (fear). So my theory – which I haven't tested out yet – is that horror writers should be able to write basic literary fiction because they have a deep familiarity with a spiral pattern.

My former mentee had been revising the same story for a couple years, trying to get it “right” for his/her professors. He/she asked if this was typical.

Is it typical to spend so much time working on a story? When you're using it as part of a longer learning process it is, and I think that's what's happening here. Any story can be reworked a zillion times, and eventually you reach a point where you're making it different, but not necessarily better. And whose definition of better do you use to judge it? Your thesis director? Mine? A friend's? In the end, only your judgment matters.

Long ago, I used to be in a writers' group, and I had a buddy from college who I exchanged stories with. One day I wrote a weird, surreal story called "Mr. Punch" that depended a lot on imagery and implication. It was the first time I'd written a story like this, and it felt right – SO right – but I was worried people wouldn't get it. I shared it with my group, and they liked it, but thought the ending was too enigmatic. I tried changing it, rewrote it a couple times, then I decided to say fuck it and trust my instincts. That story became my first professional sale, appearing in an anthology called Young Blood, next to stories by King, Poe, and Campbell. After the story was published, my college friend sent his feedback. The manuscript was covered in red ink. I decided at that point to trust my own sense of what makes a story effective, for good or ill. I still have moments of doubt, and I still try new things that I'm not sure will work, and sometimes they don't. I also still try to be open to learning new approaches to writing. But I do my damnedest to stay focused on my . . . I guess you could call it an inner artistic compass. I listen to other voices, but I don't let any of them speak louder than mine. Does that make sense?

I once had a dream long ago where I was standing in the middle of my high school gym. The bleachers were filled with silent people, and even though they didn't speak, I heard their voices in my mind. They said, "Trust your feelings." I grew angry, didn't want to accept what they said, started stomping my feet in a tantrum. As I did this, I began to grow larger and larger, but the silent people remained calm and quiet, and merely repeated their message: "Trust your feelings." The dream has stuck with me for decades, and I try to remember it whenever I get confused. I pass it along to you now. Trust your feelings. You have excellent artistic instincts. Just follow them.


The divide between literary and genre fiction can be summed up thusly: literary fiction primarily focuses on character, while genre fiction focuses primarily on plot. Yes, I know you can think of a zillion exceptions. There are literary horror, fantasy, science fiction, and mystery stories. I’m not sure there are literary romance stories, since that genre depends heavily on a specific plot elements – it must be a romance, there must be obstacles/conflicts during the course of the two main characters falling in love, and there must be a happy ending – any literary story that deals with a love story wouldn’t be considered a category romance.

The character/plot divide is a false one, and writers of all stripes would be better served not to worry about it and tell the best story they’re capable of, focusing on and stressing whatever elements each particular story needs to be successful. I believe many creative writing instructors would better serve their students if they understood this. The best book that addresses this divide and why it’s unnecessary – if not downright hurtful to producing good fiction – is Plot Vs Character by Jeff Gerke. Here’s a link: https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_1?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=plot+vs+character

Over the last few decades, genre elements have become more accepted by writers and publishers of literary fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is social science fiction, and Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is a parallel world story, for example. There are many literary journals that accept fiction with genre elements – and some that focus on genre – so if you’re a genre writer and you’d like to explore writing for literary markets, they’re out there. The Poets & Writers website has a database of literary journals and what they’re looking for. You can find that database here: https://www.pw.org/literary_magazines

Go through it, read the guidelines for each magazine, see which ones accept fiction with genre elements, check out some sample issues (hopefully, they’ll have some online), and then submit your work.

Keep in mind that literary magazines are usually not high-paying markets, if they pay at all. In the academic world – which literary journals are often affiliated with – the compensation for articles/stories/essays/poems is that professors can use these publications to help them get promotions, tenure, merit pay, etc. Also, being published in the more highly regarded journals can help writers land an agent or a book deal. So while many genre writers will firmly tell you never to write anything unless you are paid with money, literary magazines don’t operate on the same philosophy. This is different than “For the Luv” markets that pay “in exposure” (and which rarely offer you any real exposure at all since hardly anyone reads them). Being published in literary journals does come with compensation, even if it’s not always immediate and financial. So yeah, you won’t get rich writing for literary journals, but writers of genre short stories who always insist on being paid – even if it’s only a token payment – aren’t getting rich, either. So if you want to submit to literary markets, do it. If you don’t want to, then why the hell did you read all the way to the end of this entry?



My latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions. Nothing literary about this bad boy! It’s meant to be an action-filled monsters-chomping-tasty-humans adventure.

They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .

. . . and it’s starting to rain.

My story "Cast-Offs" appears in this anthology. More a nightmarish horror story than something literary, but I think you'll dig it.
Welcome to Golden Elm Lane. It’s just like any other small-town street…or is it? Horrible things happen on Golden Elm Lane…vile, monstrous, evil things. Serial killers, ghosts, and monsters of all kinds hide behind the walls lining this cursed street. Each house tells a story…a horrifying story. And now, for the first time ever, fourteen masters of horror will give you a bloody tour of Golden Elm Lane and bring it to full, terrifying life. With an introduction by the legendary creator of Jason Voorhees and the Friday the 13th franchise, Victor Miller, you'll find it difficult to turn down an invitation to attend our…CHOPPING BLOCK PARTY. Featuring all new stories from: Ray Garton, Richard Chizmar, Adam Howe, Bryan Smith, Damien Angelica Walters, Gerard Houarner, John Everson, Hunter Shea, Jeffrey Thomas, Kristin Dearborn, Nate Southard, Paul Kane, Simon Wood, Tim Waggoner, and Brendan Deneen.

My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime. This one’s blood, gore, and insanity. Not literary.


My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press. Of the three works I’m promoting right now, I consider this the closest to literary genre fiction.

It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


I’ve got a confession to make.
I hate writing action scenes.
Well . . . maybe hate is too strong a word, at least these days. I’ve written so many different books – horror, fantasy, tie-ins, novelizations – that writing action as gotten easier for me. And I’ve gotten fairly decent at it. One of the reasons my editor at Titan Books asked me to write the novelization of Kingsman: The Golden Circle was because she thought I was good at writing action. And who am I to argue with an editor? Especially when she says nice things about me.
Recently, I posted about the Kingsman novelization on Facebook, and the wonderful literary dark fantasy writer Jeffrey Ford commented that I could probably give some useful tips on writing action scenes. I thought, “Hmm . . . a potential blog post idea!” And now that I have a new novel to promote – an action-filled sea-monsters-attack book called Teeth of the Sea – it seemed like a good idea to dive into the subject (see what I did there?). So let’s cut to the action.
I usually don’t listen to music when I write, especially music with lyrics. I find the words of the songs get in the way of the words I’m trying to write. But fast-faced music, often with a hard edge, helps me write action scenes. Not only does it get me in the proper mindset to write action, it inspires me to put the same kind of frenetic energy into the prose. I used Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” when writing the Kingsman novelization because I knew from the script that the song was going to be used in the film. When writing Teeth of the Sea, I listened to something a little different: Themes from Classic Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films, which features music from the giant-monsters-attack movies Tarantula and the Deadly Mantis, among others. Movie soundtracks work great, too. They can help inspire you to bring a cinematic feel to your action scenes.
Something else I do to prepare for writing action scenes is to watch action movies, and I also read action-adventure novels. I want to immerse myself in action sequences, both visual and written, so I have an action mindset when I sit down to write.
I first encountered this technique at SF conventions, where panelists would talk about how it was THE key to writing effective, saleable fiction. They all mentioned one book: Techniques of the Selling Writing by Dwight V. Swain. After the con, I hauled ass to the bookstore and snagged a copy. You can Google “scene and sequel writing” or “scene and sequel fiction” to learn more about this technique (and I encourage you all to do so), but here’s the short version. Fiction can be divided into two basic units. a SCENE, in which a character takes active steps to achieve a small goal that helps him or her make progress toward the larger story goal, and a SEQUEL, in which that character processes the outcome of the scene and decides on his or her next move, which leads directly into the next SCENE, and so on, until the story is finished.
One day while writing an action scene for a novel, I realized that action scenes were nothing but a fast-moving chain of Scenes and Sequels. For example: Bob wants to get out of a burning building, but his arch nemesis Jim is determined to keep him inside so they’ll both burn to death. SCENE: Bob wants to reach the front door, so he starts running. Jim tackles him and they both fall to the floor. SEQUEL: (which can be an instinctive reaction instead of a well thought-out plan) Jim is lying atop Bob, so Bob decides to slam his head back into Bob’s face. SCENE: Bob does so, stunning Jim, who rolls off Bob’s back. SEQUEL: Bob is now free to move, so he will. SCENE: Bob gets to his feet and starts heading for the door once more. Jim has a baseball in his pocket. (Why, I don’t know – just go with it). He pulls out the baseball and throws it at Bob. It hits Bob in the back of the head. SEQUEL: Bob: “Ow!” The pain of the impact causes Bob to stagger, slowing him down. He fights through the pain and dizziness because he needs to get to that door. SCENE: Bob continues toward the door, staggering and weaving, moving slower now. And so on.
Using Scene and Sequel allows you to choreograph a fight scene – especially when you remember that each character has his or her own chain of Scenes and Sequels. In order to determine Bob’s actions and reactions, I also had to know what Jim’s were. Scene and Sequel also helps you remain anchored firmly in the present action so you don’t rush it. (More on this later.)
In the above example of Bob, I focused on one goal: Bob wants to get the hell out of the burning building. Jim may be his arch enemy, but Bob doesn’t have time to settle old scores, no matter how satisfying that might be. He has to get out or he’ll burn to death. Everything in the action sequence needs to be focused on Bob trying to escape, and Jim trying to keep him from doing so. If physical action won’t work, maybe Bob will try to reason with Jim, even offer to make a bargain with him of some kind – anything that will get him out of the burning building. As the fire spreads and the situation becomes more dire, Bob’s actions will become more frantic, more desperate, and more instinctive. Maybe he’ll give into that, maybe he’ll fight it. The goal can change during an action sequence, too. Maybe Bob is almost out of the building when he hears a baby crying from somewhere in the room, and his goal shifts to save the baby, and then escape.
Staying focused on your characters’ immediate goals will help you write sharper, more intense action scenes.
Too often in action movies, everyone can do everything. All the characters are equally good at fighting, driving, etc., and all the fights, chases, and escapes are the same. (The only exception is Asian characters, who almost always possess superhuman martial arts skills that somehow their opponents can counter with only basic street-fighting moves.) But all of your characters have different backgrounds, training, and experience (or in the case of a normal everyday person thrust into an action scene, no training or experience). They also have different psychological makeups. How do they normally deal with problems? Do they tackle them head-on? Do they seek others’ help in dealing with them? Do they try to manipulate others into dealing with them instead? Do they try to ignore problems and hope they’ll go away? How do your characters deal with an unexpected threat? Will they immediately leap into whatever action is necessary? Will they stand there, stunned, in terror or disbelief? How do they deal with stress? (The stress of conflict takes its toll on characters no matter what sort of story they inhabit). Do they rise to the occasion? Do they check out mentally? Do they go over to the Dark Side so they can survive? Do they betray companions so they can survive? Knowing how each character deals with problems and reacts to stress (both immediate and long-term) will help you decide what they’ll do, and not do, in action sequences.
In general, I believe an immersive point of view is the best way to go when writing fiction. So far, none of our other ways of experiencing story – movies, TV shows, videogames – is capable of getting into characters’ heads, allowing us to experience what they’re experiencing. It’s one of the great strengths of prose fiction. If you write with an immersive point of view, we’ll know what a character thinks and feels, both emotionally and physically, during an action scene. The action will be intense because, in way, it’s happening to us. Avoid writing your action scenes as if you’re viewing them on a screen. Write them as if you’re living them. When I talk about this in classes, I show an action clip from one the Bourne movies, then I show the video for Biting Elbows’ “Bad Motherfucker.” The latter is filmed from the point of view of a James Bond-like spy. I tell students to imagine action scenes (any scene, really) as if they’re the character in that video. Here’s a link if you’ve never seen it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rgox84KE7iY
I was an acting major for a time in college, and one of the most important lessons an actor has to learn in is to “play the moment.” This means don’t rush dialogue, don’t rush past the emotional beats in a scene. When writing action scenes, don’t rush through the chain of events. Allow your characters to have responses and make choices, however quick they may take place. Allow them to having physical and emotional responses to the actions they take or are taken against them. Staying in the moment is what makes an action scene feel real, and it helps create intensity and build suspense.
Too many writers write about characters who, while supposedly human, possess superhuman strength, speed, endurance, and resistance to injury. Even if your character is an action-adventure badass, he or she will slow down during an action sequence, from the build-up of lactic acid in their muscles if not from injuries. The most believable action sequence I’ve ever seen in film was in John Carpenter’s They Live. Roddy Piper and Keith David are fighting in an alley. The fight starts off high energy, but as it goes on, the combatants slow down, become out of breath and exhausted. That’s the way a real fight would go.
There’s little suspense with characters like Batman and Superman, until Batman’s back is broken and Superman is suffering from kryptonite poisoning. It’s not what you give heroes that makes them interesting; it’s what you take away from them. So consider not writing about superheroes in the first place, but if you do, try to make their action scenes believable. Let them get winded, get tired, get hurt. And let them make mistakes. Maybe they don’t make every jump they take or hit every target they shoot at, even if they ultimately succeed in a story.
And think about how your characters will feel physically and emotionally after the action is over. Tired but exhilarated? Sick to their stomach over the violence they committed? So upset they’re determined never to raise a fist in violence ever again? Surprised – and maybe more than a little ashamed – to discover they like violence and want to commit more? The aftereffects of action are just as important as the action itself.
Writers forget that the bodies of characters in action scenes are flooded with adrenaline and stress chemicals. It doesn’t matter if these characters are well-trained and experience action veterans or newbies. The veterans will be able to handle the effects of these chemicals better, but they’ll still experience them. Here are some of the effects:
·       Increase in heart rate and blood pressure.
·       Dilated pupils to take in as much light as possible.
·       Constriction of veins in skin, which causes the chilly sensation associated with fear.
·       Increased blood glucose.
·       Tensing of muscles and goose bumps. Relaxation of smooth muscles.
·       Shutting down of nonessential systems such as digestion and the immune system.
·       Difficulty concentrating on small tasks (the brain is directed to focus on the big picture).
·       Once the threat diminishes, the body releases cortisol to calm itself back down.
Questions to ask yourself: How does your character’s body work during fear? After fear? How does your character’s senses perform during fear? How effectively can your character process information during an action/fear scene? How effectively can they think and react?
I read once that the reason so many shots were fired during the gunfight at the OK Corral was because the participants’ bodies were so full of adrenaline, their physical actions were too fast, too broad, too erratic for them to shoot accurately. If that’s true, maybe it explains the lousy aim of the Stormtroopers in the Star Wars universe.
How far is your character willing to go in an action scene? What risks will he or she take? Will your character jump off a cliff like the anti-heroes in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Will he or she be willing to face a shark in its own element, as in Jaws? In a fight, how much violence are they psychologically prepared to commit? It’s easy to hurt and kill humans. Stick thumbs through their eye sockets into their brains. Slice their carotid artery. Bash their brains out with a heavy object. But most people won’t immediately go for those moves. You need to know what moves your character will make naturally, and which they’ll make when pushed somewhat, and which they’ll make when they’re pushed to the wall and feel they have no other choice.
One of my favorite sentences that I’ve ever reach in fiction came from a novelization of one the Friday the 13th movies, written by Simon Hawke: “Jason surged out of the water like a Polaris missile.”
I still laugh at the silliness of the image. The simile doesn’t work at all (nothing against Simon Hawke. I enjoyed the rest of the book just fine). A Polaris missile is military tech, science-y instead of slasher-y, and a missile is far more deadly than one dude with a machete could ever be, making Jason seem like a much lesser threat. Readers need to be able to picture clearly and accurately everything that’s happening in an action scene, not least because it’s (hopefully) fast-paced and they’re reading it quickly. If someone read the above sentence too fast, they might think a missile actually followed Jason out of Crystal Lake. Even if they realized it was a simile, they’ll still picture a Polaris missile shooting out of the water, and the image will clash with what’s really going on. Because of this, I try to avoid using similes and metaphors in action scenes, and I advise you to do the same.
Put energy into your writing so the words themselves feel like action. Instead of saying,
“She ran into the shadows,” say “She plunged into the shadows.” Instead of saying “Bob hit Jim,” say “Bob slammed his fist into Jim’s jaw.” Instead of saying “Jim let out a gust of air!” say “The wind whooshed from Jim’s lungs.” You have to be careful when writing like this, though. If you overdo it, you risk plummeting (see what I did there?) into parody.
In order to make action sequences more fast-paced for readers, write with shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs. Avoid excess description and focus in the action itself, almost to the exclusion of everything else.
I think the above says it all. Use action figures if you want or those posable wooden models that artists use. Use toy cars, boats, guns, etc. Anything that will help you visually conceive of action moves and help you describe them more effectively. If nothing else, it’ll give you an excuse to play with toys and act like a crazy person (as if writers need an excuse.)
By this point, I’ve spent all my energy, I’m gulping air, my muscles feel like lead, and I’m lightheaded and a trifle nauseated. (Writing is action, right?) I think I’ll go rest for a bit. Next time you write an action sequence, try using some of the above tips, and you’ll kick more ass and take more names than ever before.

Now that you’ve read my tips on writing action, you know you want to see if I practice what I preach! As I said earlier, my latest novel is a monster thriller called Teeth of the Sea, just out from Severed Press in both print and ebook editions.
They glide through dark waters, sleek and silent as death itself. Ancient predators with only two desires – to feed and reproduce. They’ve traveled to the resort island of Las Dagas to do both, and the guests make tempting meals. The humans are on land, though, out of reach. But the resort’s main feature is an intricate canal system . . .
. . . and it’s starting to rain.
My short story “Are You Crazy?” appears in the inaugural issue of Red Room, the Magazine of Extreme Horror and Hardcore Dark Crime.
My Bram Stoker Award-winning novella The Winter Box has been released in a new edition from Crossroad Press.
It’s Todd and Heather’s twenty-first anniversary. A blizzard rages outside their home, but it’s far colder inside. Their marriage is falling apart, the love they once shared gone, in its place only bitter resentment. As the night wears on, strange things start to happen in their house—bad things. If they can work together, they might find a way to survive until morning…but only if they don’t open the Winter Box.