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WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

July 8th, 2007 6 comments

by Mort Castle

What are you working on now, Mort?

Nothing.

***

There’s a question frequently asked of a writer by editors, other writers, agents, friends, or those casual acquaintance / everyday people who figure they need to direct meaningless chatter your way instead of gassily blathering via Bluetooth to someone even less real than you.

What are you working on now?

After all, you…

1. … just finished proofing galleys on the 37th volume (11,800 pages plus!) in your Interstellar Neo-Military Alternative History Romance Series, HELL’S HOPSCOTCH: WAR CHALLENGES OF THE CROWNED PERIWINKLE AND PLUME;

2. …are done with the final draft of an 8,000 word Gothic short story, “A Gothic Rose for Emily the Goth” which will appear in Martin Greenberg’s anthology HOW DOES YOUR GOTHIC GROW? (DAW BOOKS);

3. …completed the research on buggy whip manufacture in Lutchveldt, Illinois in 1878 (not only were buggy whips produced in this quaintly useless hamlet but also the sockets wherein they were placed) and are now prepared to write the definitive article on the subject for PICAYUNE GAZETTE.

So…

What are you working on now?

History Time: My first novel came out in 1967. My first pro level publication, academic though it was, preceded that by two years. Since then, I’ve edited four books, written 11, edited or produced or packaged a small slew of magazines, comic books, trading cards, published close to 600 “shorter things,” hither, yon, and in Poland…

The day this STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED appears, July 8, I will be 61 years old. Thank you, thank you, a donation in my name may be made to me… Cashiers checks preferred. (Still digressing: old people tend to ramble… Four days earlier, yes, Independence Day, Jane and I marked 36 years of marriage–to each other! We’ll celebrate with ten days in France in August.)

Undigressing: As you can imagine, from back when the Queen Mother was knee high to a crumpet, I’ve been hearing:

What are you working on now?

And I’ve always, always, always had an answer.

There’s the novel about gunfighters: one’s an old whiskeyhead (which was the case for many of ‘em) and the other a former prizefighter who’s missing a hand … The book was called TROUBLESEEKERS; I wrote it about 1981. It didn’t sell. It shouldn’t have.

A comic book: See, we’ll have a Hemingway “tip of the iceberg” approach instead of the over-the-top narration that’s come to be called “comic book story”: it will be subtle … That comic was NIGHT CITY; art by masters Don Kramer and Mark Nelson. Called “perfect comic book stories” by the Hartford-Courant. Nominee for “Best Illustrated Narrative,” International Horror Guild. Didn’t sell 500 copies.

I think my novel THE DEADLY ELECTION, 1976, ought to kick off a series: THE DEADLY SCHOOL BOARD MEETING, THE DEADLY DOORKNOB, THE DEADLY DOGFOOD (Hey, was that last one prophetic or was it?) Series did not happen. Probably just as well.

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for MASQUES. I wrote it…

Mort, what are you working on now?

I’ve got to be working on something. Got to. This brings in the bucks. This earns the rep. I’m going for all of it: Super-quality. Super-commerciality. Super-Stardom.

I’m working on:

Hey, just got a great opportunity to do a Batman©®™ novella with The Catwoman©®™ and all kinds of other licensed©®™ characters…

Time to research Southern Illinois AKA “Little Egypt.” The last man legally hanged in the state went to the gallows in Benton, Illinois, my wife’s home town! Tell me this is material I won’t use in a story. (The story is called “Buckeye Jim in Egypt” and it’s one I’m proud of.)

An anthology of writing by school kids and senior citizens? Yeah, I’d love to make that happen!

Jerry Williamson asked me for a story for MASQUES II. I wrote it. (It’s called “If You Take My Hand, My Son.” Visitors to ELALEPH, the leading science-fiction/fantasy website in South America, voted it the Fourth Best Horror Story of All Time, Mort said, braggingly. You can find it comic bookized in J.N. WILLIAMOSN’S MASQUES: AN ANTHOLOGY OF ELEGANT EVIL; you can hear it, along with Joe Lansdale’s “God of the Razor,” in the Grist Mill’s audio production www. amfmtheater.com)

What are you working on now?

Truth: Before this year, there was never a time in my writing life (and how do you separate that from you life life? You don’t!) when I haven’t had answers aplenty to that inquiry.

It’s how the mind works for a writer, isn’t it?

I’m working on a musical for claymation puppets and once I finish up the “how to” article on varnishing cicadas I want to do a series of related short stories about Tom Sawyer’s sister, Mary…

Sure, the brain is always linking this to that, making the connections, coming up with ideas—and the excitement that propels you to start hammering out the words.

A paperback series based on the concept for a videogame concept that was conceptualized by a nearly literate nephew of Colin Powell? Just titles: To Kill a TweetyBird; The Bite At The End; For Whom the Bell Gongs; The Secret of the Secret…

Jerry Williamson’s asked me for a story for Masques III. Oh, there’ll be a Masques IV. Oh, yeah, Jer, glad to. Cripes, buddy, you and me, we’ve been at this a while, haven’t we… It’s Masques V. Hey, Jer? Jerry?

And then, last February, at a department meeting of the fiction writing faculty at Columbia College (where, I am proud to say, I teach with a whole bunch of teachers—who teach!) I was asked:

Surprise, surprise…

What are you working on now, Mort?

And my answer was, “Nothing.”

And the response of some of my colleagues…

You’re what? You’ve always got something going. What are you working on? Can’t talk because of a contractual issue? Afraid you’ll jinx the project? Accurse the creating?

Come on, man. You’re prolific. “(Prolific = publishing a few things each year for a lotta years!)

Give us tuchus affen tish, the legit goods.

What kind of creative hustle you got going?

So okay, here’s what I am working on:

I’m reading many good books but trying to do it in the way of the thoughtful reader, someone who wants to experience the book as an experience—and not as the reader-writer with an unblinking editorial eye and an always muttering judgmental brain saying, “Yeah, you can use his transitional device to get into your flashback—and how about the way he picks up the pace by…”

I’m going to the Art Institute and looking at Manet’s The Absinthe Drinker without speculating about the old sot’s earlier life, which I plan to incorporate in my novella “Childhood of the Absinthe Drinker.”

I’m listening to the piano solo treatment of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition without trying to visualize the motion picture it should be a soundtrack for—the film I should be writing.

Hey, this evening I’ll go uptown with Jane to “Cruise Night” and look at these old cars and I won’t be concerned if I don’t memorize the 1949 Hudson’s grille so I can use it in the story of…

And you know what? I’m playing a lot of guitar. I’ve got some Gary Davis style stuff down, am getting comfortable with fairly complex jazz progressions, etc. My hands don’t work as nimbly as they used to (if you live in the Midwest, you will get arthritis!), so I’ve had to go for style.

So, Castle, you’re not writing?

I wouldn’t say that. Just the other day, I put together a really fine lesson plan for my “Researching and Writing Historical Fiction” class; I will definitely use it next semester.

I’ve never missed writing my STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED column; don’t plan to.

Let’s say I’m not writing much—now.

There’s a line in that wonderful movie Hard Times, in which Charles Bronson is a tough street / prize fighter. He says, “I’m just filling in the in-betweens.”

I have the not unpleasant feeling these days that I am filling in my in-between. The first 60 years are racked up—and now we’ve hit the drifting / floating spot that precedes the next 60.

Taking a bit of a breather.

Books I might want to write? Stories? Maybe a stage play or two? Comics? A lengthy narrative poem? Some thing for a medium that is only now being invented?

I think they’ll happen.

Indeed, I’m thinking about saying “yes” to a novella that Brian Yount proposed I do. Brian edits Doorways, which is on the way to becoming a really fine magazine—and I’d like to contribute and so, assuming an idea commands, demands, and politely seeks my attention…

But—

What are you working on now, Mort?

I’ve got 903 writing related projects, mini-projects, and tedium tasks I’ve gotta get done before noon so I can take care of the monster sized slate by evening…

I think I’ve outlived those days, days laden with self-inflicted panicked compulsion. (What makes Morton run?) Perhaps in its time that creative drive produced enough work that pleased me and still pleases me, currently bringing on a sense of, if not “That’s good,” then at least “That’s good enough,” so that, when you ask…

What are you working on now?

I can say, “Nothing. Well, nothing much…

—But I’m really into it.”

Mort Castle

STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED – Ambition

May 8th, 2007 3 comments

by Mort Castle

If you wish to succeed as a writer, you have to have ambition. You’ve heard that before. Of course, there are some dissenting voices to be heard:

Ambition is the last refuge of failure.
–Oscar Wilde

It is the constant fault and inseparable evil quality of ambition, that it never looks behind it.
–Seneca

Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices: so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping.
–Jonathan Swift

It should go without saying, but I am going to say it: a writer has to have talent. Of course, there are different ways to look at talent.

If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent.
–Isaac Newton

Talent alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.
–Ralph Waldo Emerson

As writers, we know that we must strive for originality.

About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.
–Josh Billings

No question, though, if you unite ambition, talent, and originality, why, writer, you can make… ART! You can be an ARTIST!

Fashion is a potency in art, making it hard to judge between the temporary and the lasting.
–E. C. Stedman

The people who make art their business are mostly imposters.
–Pablo Picasso

Well, maybe we don’t want to aim that high. We’ll settle for just entertaining, right?

The only way to amuse some people is to slip and fall on an icy pavement.
–Ed Howe

And let’s not forget, as writers we have the opportunity to teach–and there are many interesting lessons we can provide:

I teach that all men are mad.
–Horace

To be good is noble, but to teach others how to be good is nobler—and less trouble.
–Mark Twain

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.
–George Bernard Shaw

But no matter how you view it, writing is a great business.

Every compulsion is put upon writers to become safe, polite, obedient, and sterile.
–Sinclair Lewis

Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.
–Jules Renard

Hope you’ve enjoyed these words about words, my words of wisdom for this installment of STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED.

Cleverness is not wisdom.
–Euripides

Oh, yeah? Sez who?
–Mort Castle

DO YOU DO BLURBS?

April 7th, 2007 4 comments

By Mort Castle

The most exciting and moving romantic vampire story since somebody else wrote an exciting and moving romantic vampire story.
Lualu Beeble
Author of the Fabio LaCroix Vampio
series of Moving Romantic Vampire Novels

Page turner plot, characters more multi-dimensional than Sybil, heart stopping suspense, low in trans fat, and providing long lasting spiritual renewal, Joe’s Big Tush is the read of week!

Morg E. Lualu
Author of Chicken Soup for Chickens

Every so often, writers ask me for blurbs: those chockfull of pith quotes that can be slapped on a book’s cover or dust jacket and are guaranteed to boost sales by at least 127%.

(Digression: Either that or they don’t…Hey, I just bought a book because it was blurbed by Joyce Carol Oates, who wrote, “There are many words in this book.” Then again, every so often, I see a blurb on a book and that does make me say, “No thanks; if that yutzo likes it, not my speed.”)

Sometimes I say, “Yes, of course I am happy to write a blurb for your book.” This response is warranted when I’m dealing with a writer whose work I know—and have known—for a goodly length of time. If a Bob Weinberg, Gary Braunbeck, Wayne Allen Sallee, or Liz Massie were to seek a Mort mini-paean of praise for a book, there’d be no question: these writers are bonded. The worst book they could come up with would be a noble failure; the best book… Well, take a look at Ms. Massie’s Wire Mesh Mothers or Mr. Sallee’s The Holy Terror.

Sometimes I say to I. Seeka Blurb… No.

Why the negative?

Oh, that could be because I just plain don’t feel like it. Hey, this fame thing… you get tired of seeing your name everywhere, you know.

Or it could be because I am simply not the right reader for your work. If you’ve read all the Tom Clancy books and you are writing “in the tradition of Tom Clancy” then you probably should ask Tom Clancy for a blurb because Tom Clancy is not my taste—though I recognize his professional word-slinging skill and have no problem with the fans of his work, because one man’s ceiling is another man’s sauna, etc.

Or it could be because… I’ve seen your work and you’re more likely to be one more anonymous name on the roster of a 12 Step Program held in the basement of a Methodist church in Bungee, Wisconsin than on the NY Times Bestsellers list.

Or it could be because… You are a jerk. You have done something bad-jerky that involved me, my friends, the community of decent people, and I am not Buddha enough not to carry a grudge, so, hell yeah… I’ll give you a blurb—if I can be assured it will be on any work of yours published posthumously.

You jerk.

But to most blurb-seekers I say neither yes nor no.

I am the “Maybe Man.”

Certainly I am gratified—hell, flattered—when someone thinks a word of commendation from me might matter.

But I am careful. I do not hand out those commendatory utterances like the new kid at school passing out Valentines on 02/14.

(Digression: Are there authors who do that? Probably not. Nah… I don’t know where the idea might have come from…)

What I say to most people who request a Mort-blurb…

Mort on the Soap Box:

I like to think that when I praise something, it means I am praising it. I like to think that I have earned a reputation for having taste. I like to think that readers think I think.

Therefore…

I will read your book.

If I can honestly say, “I like this,” then I will indeed say that. Publicly. Loudly. And happily.

And, I hope, with more word-élan than you have here.

After all, this guy has been a teacher since the decade Dewey started his Decimal System, and educating means you guide people to what is worth reading.

If I have to say, “No, I am sorry; I cannot laud your endeavor,” then I will also say so. To you. And to no one else.

I owe you that.

And of course, I realize—unlike other egoistic, narcissistic, solipsistic souls—that my opinion is just and only my opinion. I recently said “Sorry, this doesn’t make it” to an author whose book proved to not need a Mort Castle blurb: instead, the publisher used a nice quote from Publisher’s Weekly.

Mort Castle’s latest book is the newest book to be released since his last book.
–Mort Castle
Storytellers Unplugged

THE NO BALONEY GUIDE TO SUCCESSFUL WRITING

January 7th, 2007 18 comments

by Mort Castle

We at Storytellers Unplugged know that many of our readers come for advice: they seek to be wildly successful writers, just like all of us Unplugs.

It’s 2007. It is the dawning of the Age of Aquarium. Time to quit handing out the same old bromides, borscht, and boushwah: Read widely. Revise constantly. Study the markets. Mumbo-jumbo-tick-a-tee hoo-hah …

I am coming clean in this new year. Here’s the real stuff.
(Oh, you ask why I didn’t share this before? Truth: I was afraid you’d become my competition. But things have gone so well for me lately that I now devote all of Wednesday and most of Thursday to counting my money.)

FICTION OR NON-FICTION
Which should I write?

A lot more non-fiction than fiction is published.

But think about what non-fiction is: It’s factual! Facts require research. If you want to learn how to square your hypotenuse or bronze baby shoes or babies, if you’re checking out the history of fried foods and the manufacture of 45 RPM record inserts, if you want to assemble a discography of pop superstar Debbie Boone or a list of Uganda’s five star hotels, you’re going to have to spend as much as many hours looking up stuff!

Fiction is all made up.

You can make up stuff a lot quicker than you can look up stuff.

End of discussion.

WRITING RESOURCES

What about “how to” magazines like The Writer and Writer’s Digest? You think those magazines are designed to give you knowledge?

Wrong.

They are meant to sell you things.
That is why they are loaded with advertising. Here’s a “Glow in the Dark” porta-desk to use while hanging upside in the closet by your “Increase Acuity & Dizziness Grav Boots” and “Think-n-Type Thought Recognition Software” and “Summer Camp for Short (under 5′ 1″) Story Writers,” and …

You probably already have a computer or a typewriter or a pen or a pencil. Or a crayon if you are not permitted to use sharp objects.

You don’t need anything else.

You need to write stuff.

But aren’t there books that …

Certainly there are books. And where do you see them advertised?

Get it now?

AVOIDING THE READING TRAP

Become an avid reader in the genres you wish to write as well as in all forms of literature, popular, literary, classical.

And don’t talk back to your mother with your mouth full, especially on a day in which you’re not certain if your underwear is clean.

Nobody pays you to read books.

You get paid for your writing.

You can waste as much time reading as you can researching.

Perhaps as important, it’s possible you’ll damage all your wonderful, original, originality because of influences picked up from reading all the stuff out there.
Put pernicious published writings into your cerebrum and next thing you know, you’re writing To Kill a Hummingbird and The Lovely Ligaments or A Staggering Work of Heartburning Genius or The Silence of the Chickens.

You don’t need other writers.

Trust yourself. Plato said that. Or Newt Gingrich. Or Jesus.

Somebody said it. I’m not going to waste time looking up who.

LIFE EXPERIENCES = DOODLE E SQUAT

How often have you been told that your very own life is the best source of writing ideas?

Go to the mirror, my friend. That is one sad sack of a schlepper looking back at you. Dull? If you were a food, you’d be Crisco.

Today I’m going to write a novel based on my having had root canal three weeks ago. And let’s not forget that grippingly dramatic and dramatically gripping brouhaha when my little sister ate my orange popsicle and …

Hey, tell me you actually read anyone’s “Holiday Newsletter”; that dreck is news like the “Benjamin Franklin Invents Electricity” is tomorrow’s headline. You are living your own newsletter and it’s a chronology of events that would make Dale Carnegie deem you a walking coma.

As a writer, your life is utterly worthless and meaningless for creating stories people will want to read.

Accept it and move on. Or if you’re having trouble dealing with it, tune in Oprah or Dr. Phil or Jerry Springer or Judge Judy …

THANK GOD GOD INVENTED TELEVISION

Television is a writer’s best friend.
It is full of ideas that are sure to appeal to mass audiences.
You argue?

The losingest loser of a television program, something that is canceled in 47 minutes flat, still has a bigger audience than any bestselling novel!

Television show concepts are certain to resound with your audience.

But won’t the audience reject an imitation of a TV show …

Uh, that’s why there is only one successful Survivor type show. Right. That’s why American Idol has spawned all sorts of Fill in the blank Idol–with Hillbilly Yokel Klezmer Idol scheduled to debut this March.

So, let’s turn on the television and get ready for a deluge of dynamite ideas: The desperate housewife who yearns to work with Donald Trump is Lost beyond Jericho as she attempts to slay a vampire who is Sammy Soprano, the Bloodsucker of The Next Generation.

ESSENTIAL WRITING TECHNIQUES

Dialogue
“Said” is a very boring word. Your fourth grade teacher was absolutely right to tell you that; after all, she earned her job teaching fourth grade.

Here are a whole bunch of words that are much neater and more awesome than said: laughed rejoiced giggled joked lilted sang out cried agonized bawled blubbered lamented sobbed groaned sniveled wept mourned insisted bossed demanded preached dictated professed ordered raged miffed seethed fumed retorted thundered blurted barked cried out cried screamed jabbered bellowed groaned howled shrieked roared grieved wailed yelped quaked stammered shuddered quivered trembled empathized accepted consoled crooned comforted sympathized agreed mumbled struggled emitted wearied beseeched begged implored pleaded entreated responded retorted replied rejoined acknowledged acquiesced added addressed ad-libbed admitted admonished advised advocated affirmed agreed alleged allowed announced articulated assented asserted assumed averred avowed babbled beckoned …

There are more.

To show how these words can enliven what might otherwise be dull dialogue:

“Oh!” she babbled, “Yes! Like that!” She gasped. “More!” she entreated.

“Oh! Ah!! Oh, oh, ah … Oh, oh, oh!” he ejaculated.

Strong Language

We’re not talking about active verbs and specific nouns: We live in a time in which dirty language has become commonplace and if you want today’s readers to respond to your writing, then you had better use strong language and lots of it.
Not:

“I’m sorry to tell you, Mersault, but Mother is dead.”

Mersault put a hand to his forehead. “Mother … Dead… ”

But:

“I’m fucking sorry to fucking tell you, the fuck, Mersault, but fucking Mother is fucking dead.”

Fucking Mersault put a fucking hand to his fucking forehead.

And we punch it up with:

“Mother Fucking … Dead the Fuck…” Mersault sobbed sobbingly.

We live in an age of honest and open communication, so don’t fuck around.

Gimmick
A signature gimmick helps any writer.

Kurt Vonnegut at his most profound or with nothing to say will toss in “And so it goes.”

The early Charles Bukowski avoided capital letters in his stories.

Charles Frazier used — instead of ” ” and wound up winning a National Book Award for Cold Mountain.

You can borrow the gimmicks of others or mix ‘n’ match and combine ‘em with your own:

–i’m fzcking sorry to fzcking tell you, the fzck, mersault, but fzcking mother is fzcking dead ώ ώ ώ ώ ώ

fzcking mersault put a fzcking hand to his fzcking forehead ώ ώ ώ ώ ώ –mother fzcking … dead the fzck… mersault sobbed sobbingly ώ ώ ώ ώ ώ

THE CONFIDENT MARKETER

Writers fail for the same reason everyone fails. They don’t believe in their work.
You believe, right? You know your stuff is good. You know there are still all those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You know the tooth fairy is rubbing her hands waiting for your molars! You believe!

When you have completed a manuscript, it’s time to send it to a publisher. Do so with confidence. Show that you are aware of the shining worth of your creation and that the entire world had damned well better give heed.

No wimpy letter, then, along the lines of …

that you will please, please, I most heartily entreat you, consider my humble manuscript for …

But:

Listen Up! Here’s a bestseller! You thought the Bible had an audience? 24 of The Virgin Springer will revolutionize the revolution and unscrew the inscrutable …

So are you going to publish it or are you going to lose a gazillion dollars?

That’s it. With what you know now you’re on the way to one bestseller after another.
Thanks to me.

You’re welcome. The fzck.

–Mort

NOTES ON CONTRIBUTORS

December 8th, 2006 9 comments

by
Mort Castle

I don’t know about you, but like a lot of writers, I read those “Notes on Contributors” that appear in anthologies and literary magazines. They give you real insight into the writing processes and pathologies of the people you call your colleagues or competition.
There are those we see as prolific:

LORRAINE LIFTSHOES has had poetry in more than 17,000 literary magazines in the past month. Recovering from a recent lung, kidney, and liver transplant, she has had to slow down considerably. “I feel a tremendous urge to write poems,” she says. “I can only wonder how much greater my output would be if I actually had anything to say.”

Of course, there are the experimental writers, those who maintain that the rules of expression worked out over the past eight to ten thousand years no longer do the job and must be broken or utterly abandoned in order to address the issues and peoples of a World Gone Ipod.

DON R. N. BLITZEN says, “I want to make my stories as incomprehensible as Life itself. Though I am of course constrained by the constraints of constraining language I have elucidated that former the sparrow Ulysses my electric morning mad foot dog toe whistles. Poot ape patootie.” He has won the National Book Award, the International Book Award, the Book Center for the Book Award, and was a first runner-up in the annual Publisher’s Clearing House sweepstakes lottery last year. As BLITZEN says of his latest non-novel, HOUSE OF MY FLICK FRIENDA: “Activate your flutie.”

Well before Swift suggested cooking Irish children (no fava beans but heavy on the parsley) and eating them right up (what, you’d eat ‘em without cooking ‘em?), literature has been seen as a means to advance causes:

KENYATTA MBULU LOBOTOMI (AKA Lincoln Smith): “I am black and an angry black and a proud angry black. I live in a racist, oppressive society dedicated to the physical and spiritual destruction of the black man, and it pisses me off.” In his senior year at Harvard, KENYATTA plans to enter the field of corporate law.

There are those who, unable to locate a different drummer to provide the beats take up arrhythmic banging on their own:

NICK PACHYDERMIS has published more than sixty short stories in My Mag, the little magazine he publishes, prints, and distributes from the trunk of his 1987 Chevrolet Nova. His novel, a dramatic fictionalizing of his traumatic experience helping his mother wrap Christmas gifts, is entitled Gifts Are Forgiving But I Am Not, and will be published as a special book length edition of My Mag. Of his work, he writes, “My stuff is too raw and real for the New York lit mob, and too true and tight for most of the small press elitists, so I publish it myself. It would be even better if I could just put things up on a website but I can’t, because they control the new media, too. You know they do.”

And when you have publication, you have … academia!

McBUNDY LAETRILE is an assistant professor of English at Some State University in East Jesus, Missouri. This is his first published poem, but he plans to write many more in that he likes his job and wants to keep it. “I get medical and there’s a dental plan.”

MARYLOU SWEETSWEAT won the prestigious TRELLIS PRIZE for
her work in translating the poems of e.e. cummings into English.

Though there are respectable folk a’plenty publishing these days, now that we have about 400 colleges offering Creative Writing majors, the field of literature still has a place for its true outlaws:

ANDREAS “MOONGLOW” HELDT is serving a 500 to 1,500 year term in Super-Max Solitary at a Prison that Cannot be Named Unless You’re Looking for A Number of Operatives to Do a Patriot Act on You. Convicted in 1983 of killing 46 children in the production of a kiddy porn snuff film, HELDT has come to regard imprisonment of anyone, but especially himself, as morally unjust. Later this year, BULLSHOT PRESS will bring out his first book, the fictional memoir, I Didn’t Do It 46 Times, But If I Did …

We encounter the editor/publisher wearing a different hat.

D.O.A. WISENESS continues to compile material for his planned anthology, Poems Of Famous Dead Poets. If you are a published dead poet, or plan to be in the near future, he urges you to contact him as soon as possible. Don’t bother to enclose SASE.

And sometimes we meet …
MORT CASTLE, who used to do standup but decided to sit down and write and who hopes, on occasion, and when intended, that he can still provide a laugh or two.

###

PS: Hey, it’s that season for giving–and you’ll have something to give if you first do some buying, buying, buying! No, don’t get DNW a paisley tie; he’s already got a handsome one. And forget those instructional audiotapes for Steve Saville: HOW TO TALK LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE. Everyone on your holiday list will want a copy of ON WRITING HORROR, from the Horror Writers Association, edited by yours truly and just released by Writer’s Digest Books.

MORT WAXES POETIC

November 7th, 2006 5 comments

by Mort Castle

Last month we had some fun here, some of us, choosing to publish fiction.

This month, I am going to share with you some poetry.

This is prompted by my being asked a question — the question — the other day when I was working with high school freshmen. This was a new crew, some really tuned in to this “writing thing,” some not quite sure if I was a substitute teacher, NBA, college, or Army recruiter, or apprentice custodian, and some in telepathic touch with their native planets.

But this guy asks, “You’ve really devoted your whole life to this, haven’t you? Could you explain why?”

I first had to explain why a long time back. The why came at a bad time: I had given up the sinecure of the daily teaching gig and I wasn’t bringing in a whole lot of dollars. I was averaging seven to 12 rejections for every short story acceptance. The publisher of my last book had gone under. My then agent said, “Damned if I can figure why we’re not getting anywhere but we’re not so we might as well break up.”

Then I got a nice day’s workshop at a high school in Chicago.

And then, just about a year later, I heard from a kid who’d been in that workshop.

And then I knew why I had signed on for the duration in this craft and sullen art, knew it all over again. Renewal, bucky.

And I had a poem.

And every so often I read the poem again. My hairline has changed since the poem was written, my chin has grown another to keep it company, I’ve known the deaths of at least as many friends and family and dreams as the typical guy my age, but that poem still talks to me about why it is I do what I do … still do and will do until they pry my …

And why I encourage others to go ye and do likewise.

This is the poem:

the high school writers’ workshopThe question is asked as it is always asked, this time by a young man (so young, I think, he is almost brand new) with new wave hair and the shrugging casual innocence of Wally Cleaver.

“Why write?”

I have done years of these workshops but for some reason, the answer doesn’t simply snap back this time, no, not this time, because I find myself thinking of my last year’s writing income, less than I’d have earned painting numbers on curbs all summer.

And I’m thinking of my friend, my teacher, Bill, a poet, dead at 44, dead by his own hand that held the hypodermics and the pills,

and thinking of a fools’ conga line of American authors who’ve drunk-staggered up to claim their Nobel Prizes…

Hey, I am here to run a workshop: If you have questions, I have answers.

“You write because you have something to say…”

We get on with it, discuss elements of fiction and poetry; at the end of the day, I have a check for $250, not a bad day’s work, better than I’d earn painting numbers on curbs.

A year or so later, the questioning young man sends me a copy of his poem printed in his school’s literary magazine.

The poem’s last lines are: I knew I knew how to love/but only after my brother died.

A CIRCLE OF MAGIC

October 8th, 2006 11 comments

by
Mort Castle

Thank you, to me you have been so kind, very kind. Living, I did not wish to continue, no, no more, but my life, you preserved my life, returned it to me. So please, I will repay you, as I am honor bound and in accordance with the customs of my land. I will truly repay your goodness, I will. All must be repaid.

Therefore, do you see how upon the paper scrap, I draw the circle of magic as it is done in my country? No, it matters not upon what surface we place our circle. Ha! How foolish to think so, even. Magic is magic, it is so, and we do not need a good or better quality bond paper, of course not.

The source and power of Magic comes from intention and my intention toward you, oh, my uncalled for friend, why there is no end of the gratitude which is mine for that which you have done!

Thus, I draw the circle! There! The circle of magic, and thus, with sincerity and humility of the utmost, I do present it to you!

Of course I shall explain! Upon the circle of magic, please to gaze. And as your eyes focus upon it, then think of the one person in your life responsible for bringing to you the most pain.

This might be the love of your youth — a love which was unrequited.

Might it be the cruel parent–or worse, the absent mother or father?

Might it be, oh, just might it be someone you hate because this someone is someone you cannot stop loving?

Think of this someone, please, yes, this individual who burned your heart until it became a hard glowing cinder the smoke of which still comes from your lungs when you remember …

Oh, I cannot this answer for you. You must answer for you.

And now, friend to me of the most unselfish graciousness, all you need do is place your finger within the circle and the magic will occur:

Never again, not ever again, will you think of this person!

Here, take the circle of magic.

It is my thanks to you.

###

— Mort Castle

MISCELLANEOUS THOUGHTS MORE OR LESS RELATED

September 10th, 2006 12 comments

by
Mort Castle

How did the phrase he thought to himself ever come into being, let alone become accepted usage? To whom else can you think, unless you are telepathic?

How to Tell a Bad Paperback Part I: If you read In the Tradition of on the cover, that’s almost a guarantee of cookie cutter contents.

I’ve done no research on this, but it seems that poets read more fiction than fiction writers read poetry. Methinks many fiction writers would profit by reading poetry; the idea of saying it once in a memorable way and then shutting up is an idea that could make many bestsellers better books, although they might no longer be in the tradition of.

Will someone please tell my why you find Garrison Keillor on the “Humor” shelf at Barnes and Noble and Borders? He’s funny, for sure, but there’s a whole lot more to be found in such works as WLT: A Radio Romance, Lake Woebegone Days and Love Me. Keillor takes on the big questions related to The Big Question: Life. And despite a dark and pessimistic note or two, he comes up with some, let’s say, existential optimism that so often makes me nod my head and say, “Yeah, that man has insight and the ability to share. He’s a writer.” Sure, Mark Twain makes us laugh but we don’t condemn him to a shelf next to the coma causing commentaries of Jeff Foxworthy and Tim Allen.

(Aside to Johnny Skipp and Liz Massie: Keillor does gross right, really funny scatological; perhaps if we can get him off the “Humor” shelf, he’ll be willing to spend time in the “Horror” section.)

A lot of people reading this know that I do not publicly knock other writers. Back in the 1970s, when I truly discovered just what a tough business this writing thing is, I decided I never wanted to be in a position in which I was responsible for bashing in any way a brother-in-arms, and it was then I quit doing book reviews. But I sure have no problem in publicly praising those writers who’ve earned my praise, and, because the (ahem) “Castle commendation” is not passed out in the style of the new kid in second grade trying to earn points on Valentine’s Day, I like to think that my praise might put a reader or three onto a newer writer.

Today’s tip of the Castle chapeau to Christopher Conlon. He edited Poe’s Lighthouse, from CD Books, and has several non-fiction works to his credit, but he’s primarily published poetry and it shows: his story “Ghost in Autumn” in Masques V is informed by the concrete and particular language of poetry and shows the mature poet’s control and restraint. This story is emotional and honest while avoiding the manipulations of melodrama that are so often found in “imaginative fiction.”

In short, the guy is good.

Uh, what’s that stuff about melodrama?

Glad you asked, thereby allowing me to meander pontificatingly anew …

Drama is honest writing. Melodrama is dishonest writing. Drama presents a scene as it happens. It allows us to feel. Melodrama presents a scene with “authorial touches” that are calculated to manipulate our feelings.

As the late John Gardner put it, “In great fiction, we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentation of what happens … We are moved by characters and events … not by the emotion of the person who happens to be telling the story.”

How to tell a bad paperback Part II: When we have a half dozen cover blurbs from people you’ve never heard of, despite your knowing enough about the genre to be browsing in that section of the bookstore.

Ponder this koan and see if it gets your brain moving outside the familiar forms: Extreme Championship Wrestling is now broadcast on the Science-Fiction Channel.

Prediction Regarding Five Writers Who Will Be Creating Work Meriting Your Attention … Gary Frank. Lucien Soulbain. Nickolas Cook. Patty Templeton. Brian Torney. (Yes, there are others, but today, as this is being written, these five have impressed themselves on my mind not solely because of their talent but because they all possess the ferocity of artistic ambition you must have to succeed in this endeavor. And hey, to the five at whom I’m pointing the finger … Patience, patience. This is not boxing or ballroom dance; your legs will not give out on you.)

I’m reading as much nonfiction as fiction these days: You want horror, mystery, majesty, and style in service of subject, try Richard Selzer’s The Exact Location of the Soul. He’s a former surgeon and he writes like a surgeon.

How to tell a bad paperback Part III: The Title followed by any number higher than 12 and often the words “in the series.” The Grapes of Wrath #116: Stomping Out the Vintage! Continuing the Muckracking Adventures of Sinclair’s The Jungle with #33 … Rampaging Snoots: Hot Dogs and Wild Hogs. The Old Man and the Sea II: Santiago Swears “I’ll be Back!” The Old Testament has five books, and even at that, some of plots are repetitive and some characters contrived.

A Sad Note on Writers and Music: Why yes, I used to listen to Savoy Brown, Moby Grape, and Spirit when I wrote. Now I listen to Bill Evans, Satie, and Debussy.

Sigh …

THE GGI

August 7th, 2006 3 comments

by
Mort Castle

All writers get asked, “Where do you get ideas?” And all writers eventually come up with a reply based on their experience, belief, or smartassedness, answers ranging from, “Ah, grasshopper, where is it you do not get ideas?” to “I pray real hard and the Lord sends a whispering seraph to inspire me,” to “If I tell you, then we’d both know.”

No question, though, “Ideas are the root of creation.” Ernest Dimnet, the now little read author of the 1930s bestseller The Art of Thinking, produced that quote, and if this statement of the obvious rendered in the most overt way represents the state of his art…

But what most seekers of truth are really asking is, “Where do you get good ideas?”

You know, the kind of idea that has guaranteed reader grab, that will make someone plow through all nine gazillion pages of your novel to learn what happens in the mad captain’s obsessive hunt for the great white whale, that will assure you the story reader sticks with you all the way with every swing of the descending pendulum in the pit, or that will be certain to keep your poetry peruser thinking (and thinking and thinking) about why the woods are dark and deep and just how many miles there might be for all of us before we sleep …

Good ideas. Ideas that people want to read, that editors want to buy, that you, as a creator, can use.

Guaranteed Good Idea (henceforth know as GGI–which sounds like an unpleasant but authoritative medical test involving fairly flexible piping and your gastrointestinal tract but isn’t): Write about a woman who makes a dress out of her curtains and knows that “Tomorrow is another day.”

GGI: There’s this man who awakens to find himself transformed into an insect.

GGI: There’s a strange visitor from another planet who comes to Earth with powers and abilities …

All GGI material, right?

I don’t think so.

I’ve come to think, as writer and teacher of writing, that there are no GGIs.

Conversely, I’ve come to think there are no bad GGIs.

There are only ideas, period, those “roots of creation” that Monsieur Dimnet lauds–in his utterly laughable expression of his idea!

Here’s an idea, one that might perhaps seem a tad familiar and not brimming with originality: This guy loves the girl. The girl loves the guy. Their families hate each other.

Oooooh. That’s so cliché, such an obvious lift from Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. I even read

the Cliff notes on that one …

Chances are Shakespeare read the Cliff notes on that one because the idea was already a cliché in the Bard’s time. And if you don’t think this story springboard creaks with contrivance, then you probably think every car chase in The Dukes of Hazzard was not only enthralling but absolutely essential to the plot.

Yet Romeo and Juliet with its done to death (squared) premise came alive for Shakespeare’s audience and for the audiences that came after and even for…

“Hey! Here’s a good idea. See, the guy loves the girl. The girl loves the guy. Their families hate each other.” And Arthur Laurents and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim give us West Side Story.

Now, let’s take the same premise, the same idea, and hand it off to none other than (the late) Mr. Aaron Spelling, the man who brought us such enduring gems as Beverly Hills 90210, Melrose Place, 7th Heaven, Pacific Palisades, and Sunset Beach. You may be sure the result will find a Fox Network slot, high ratings (for a time) and will attain the mediocrity its producer spent much of his career striving for.

GGI or GBI (Guaranteed Bad Idea)? Let’s update Ulysses, huh?

Think of what writers and filmmakers have done and will do to this concept.

Charles Frazier gave us Cold Mountain.

No UFO or school for warlocks or Memento mental gymnastics, what we do is film a couple of guys talking over dinner.

Argh, there’s a film I’d want to see. Yeah, I remember in high school we videotaped the whole gang talking such kewl talk during lunch and then the whole gang went into the kewlest comas when they tried to watch it …

Let’s try My Dinner with Andre.

Do you understand why, when I lead a writing workshop, one of the ground rules is that no one is permitted to say, “That’s a good idea (for a story, novel, what have you),” or “that’s a bad idea”?

Are you seeing why writers like Tom Piccirilli with his Choir of Ill Children and Elizabeth Massie with her Wire Mesh Mothers and Glen David Gold with Carter Beats the Devil are probably not saying, “Here’s this good idea for my book” but are more likely coming up with, “Here’s an idea that, for whatever the reason, grabs me–and I’ll see if I can present that idea in a way that makes it grab others”?

GGI, GBI, for me, neither one exists.

What does exist is the challenge of mastering the craft and clarifying the originality of vision that will metamorphose the neither-good-nor-bad IDEA into a writing that satisfies both reader and writer.

DEFINING HORROR: Nine Musings on The Nature of Horror

July 8th, 2006 6 comments

By Mort Castle

1. You write horror? they (readers, students, writing colleagues, telephone solicitors, the FBI, etc.) ask me.

Do you buy horror? I ask them.
If they say yes, I say, “I write horror.”

Stands to reason, then, that I’d have handy-dandy, even a facile definition of horror.

I don’t.
But I know it when I see it.
Just like Nixon’s Supreme Court knew pornography.

2. Author, editor, attorney Doug Winter wrote in his 1982 anthology Prime Evil, “Horror is not a genre… It is not a kind of fiction, meant (for)…a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.”

This quotation is widely bandied about in

To begin with b) why, yes, horror is an emotion. Got it. Had not thought it was one of the prime food groups or a means of vulcanizing rubber.

Joy, anger, melancholia, disgust, ennui are likewise emotions. Maybe even rapture, if we exclude pseudo-Christian overtones, and nausea, if we include Existentialists and French Symbolists.

But step into Barnes and Noble or Borders, visit the Info Desk and ask to be directed to the Disgusting books section… No matter how detestable, with its bumper sticker religion and 17th century medical knowledge, Dr. Sagi Cobra’s latest Oprah endorsed tome, Starvation for Spiritual Salvation is on the “Self-Help” shelf.

Ditto the other emotions.
But hot damn, horror is too a genre.
Because it says so right on the spines of the books you’ll find on the shelves underneath the HORROR sign!

It was horror when for a dozen or so years it was disguised as Dark Fantasy or Supernatural Thriller or Crypto-Modern Gothic or Bleak and Baleful Suspense or what the hell.

But it’s horror.
So there.

3. So here comes Kurtz after peering right at/into the Heart of Darkness: “The horror. The horror.”

Nobody thought to ask him what the hell he was talking about.
Someone did ask Joseph Conrad.
He answered in Polish.

4. “But I guess people read horror to release their deep-seated fear of death, provide a cathartic purging. ” That’s a line from a note recently sent me by a young editor of a small press anthology.

Logic would say that—facile logic “People write horror to release their deep-seated fear of death, provide a cathartic purging.” Freshman Psych class at a none too good community college…

Maybe Logic would and maybe an overpriced 13th grade Psych text, but not this guy.

Here’s what I had to say in “Dani’s Story,” which appeared in the horror magazine After Hours and was reprinted in the horror collection Moon on the Water:

The situation in this metafictional work… Our narrator, a fictional guy named Mort Castle, is trying to write up fictional Dani’s story:

***(So…) why don’t I just get on with it? Her story. Just charge into the beginning, chainsaw through the middle, and then, Tah-dah!

At last!
The End!
That will be IT!

That will take care of it. I know that is what she hopes in a vague and inexpressible way that manages to irritate the hell out of me.

So, hey, why doesn’t she write it?
No, no thank you, Mort. I lived it. That takes care of my
obligation, yes?

Dani thinks I have magic. Mort the Writer. Published and everything, published in languages I do not even speak.

Okay, maybe… to Dani, and a few others, I am Mort The Shaman
And I can do magic
Get HER story into print.
That will give purpose to the horror.
Purpose. Not catharsis.
Catharsis? Doesn’t happen. And I cannot will not
will not tell her
that it is just there
the horror
will always be

Whoo, I got pretty carried away there, I guess…. Hoo-and hah.

You might also thinking there’s depth to this horror thing, not just reading for “escape.”
Wouldn’t want you to think that.
After all, this is genre fiction.
Pulp Pap for the Populist Populace.
Uh-huh.
P-tooey.

5. So what is your definition, what is horror about, whatchoo talkin’, anyway?
From “Dani’s Story” once more.

Horror is WHAT IF? Above all, and forget the bullshit metaphysics, horror is the impossible to control hurting we do to ourselves. If the toothache eases, hey, we just have to stab the old tongue in there to get it fired up and screeching again, don’t we?

6. Horror is when I fall on the icy sidewalk and chip a bone in my ankle and the ankle will always hurt when it gets cold and I will always remember that there are icy sidewalks waiting, icy sidewalks and worse.

Of course, comedy is when you fall on the icy sidewalk.
Except when I am chock-ful of Buddha compassion.

7. Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones is masterfully written horror.

Joe Schlepper’s Humongous Groto-Ugly Face Eating, Snot Sucking Lumpy Puke Pus Monster is also horror and it’s every bit as well written as you might imagine.
To some readers, it might not matter.
(Now, is that horror, huh, huh, huh?!?)

8. Akira Kurosawa said, “It is the role of the artist not to look away.”

Joseph Conrad said (in English), “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, above all, to make you see. That – and no more, and it is everything.”

Mort Castle said, “Too damned many alleged horror writers can’t see and they invite you to share their vision.”

9. A true gentleman and a superb horror writer named Gary Braunbeck said, ““…before there can be fear, before there can be terror… there first must be a held breath of sadness and longing…”

Sadness and longing.
Here is the start of a story…

A five year old girl was abducted from outside her apartment house in California. She was molested and murdered.

That really happened. That really happens. It’s terrible, and if you are one of the rare people who actually do cluck their tongues, then you might register this as a three clucker. What a world…

But that is not horror. We do not get horrified at each new face on a milk carton. The milk carton kids! Collect them all!

Now, here’s something else you need to know. And this, too, is true.

The little girl was carried off by a man who lured her with a request for help in finding his puppy dog.

That sort of cruelty, that calculated wickedness that understands childhood so well… A puppy is soft and funny and nice and kids love puppies.

And now we start to see it. He needed her assistance because he was kind of a heavy guy, couldn’t bend down to look in all the places a puppy might hide. He told her, though she knew on her own, that the puppy would be lonely. The puppy wouldn’t know where it was. The puppy would be frightened. The puppy would get hungry. The puppy would starve or eat something bad and maybe it would die and that was why she had to help him and when they found the puppy, he would give her a reward: five dollars.

Now, look at her face as she gets in the man’s car.

You’re starting to feel it, aren’t you: This is the horror part, buddy boy.

It gets worse. I’m talking horror here. Look at his face. Look at his face. Look at his face.

And now, here is the horror.

Later, after he did what he did, after the child was dead, he had some good luck.
His missing puppy had found its way back home.

The dog, a terrier mix, one black ear and a droopy white ear, was waiting for him at the back door.

And the man was very glad that his puppy was home and safe.

Now, for me, that’s horror.

And you?

— Mort Castle