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Posts Tagged ‘stories’

THE FORMULA

September 7th, 2008 2 comments

In her latest Storytellers Unplugged column on screenwriting, Alexandra Sokoloff wisely wrote, “And for those of you who are reeling in horror at the idea of a formula… it’s just a way of analyzing dramatic structure.”

I nodded my head. Indeed, I know an opinion is of value if I agree with it.

And I sure do agree …

But Castle, a nitpicker sayeth, you’re always blathering on and on about quality, about the need to avoid the cliche and …

Uh-huh.

And what makes you, o picker of nits, think that the formula precludes quality or that it isn’t the engine leading to the creation thereof?

Here’s what I had to say on the subject, oh, back in 1983:

A not so far-out fantasy based on all-too-true reality:

The scene: A cocktail party. Having learned that I am a writer, she approaches. She is middle-aged, pleasant, interested in literature, enrolled in a college course called, “The More
Famous Minor Works of Recently Deceased Contemporary Authors.”

She wants to know: “What do you write?”

I tell her: “Men’s mag stories …”

She frowns.

” … Horror stories. Mysteries … “

She frowns and sneers.

” … Science-fiction and fantasy … ”

She frowns and sneers and grimaces.

” … Suspense. And confessions stories, yeah, I write lots of confessions …”

And now she looks as though she realizes she has French-kissed a leper!

Zap! She lets me have it: “You write formula fiction!”
And she says it like: “You promise little children candy and comic books if they get in your car…” She says it like: “You operate a lab that does painful and needless experiments on very dogs and sweet cats. . .” She says it like—

Hey, you know how she says it.

But this time, this time, uh-uh, this time,

Bucky, enough is too much.

So I leap onto a coffeetable. And I start off with a scream and I get louder and I’ve got my arms flapping like I’m trying to fly and I’m a sure contender at Oscar time for Best Performance by an Out-of-Control Lunatic as I get rolling:

“Edgar Allan Poe wrote formula fiction. He figured out the formula! There’s this story about a nutty captain looking for an albino whale—and that’s Moby Dick and you can say that Melville wrote formula stuff because it’s an adventure story, huh? And also a how-to book, should you go whaling…”

Woo! (Borrowing from the Rick Flair formula.) Am I into it! “And Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and Steve Crane! Formula,
right?”

Oh, yes, I’ve got her, Ms. Lit Crit. She is pale, near catatonic! So time for the barrage! “And Flannery O’Connor and Conrad Aiken, Charles Beaumont, Ted Sturgeon, and Harlan Ellison and Paul Boles and Loren Estelman and Ray Bradbury. Fine writers. Ernest Hemingway. Blow up bridge. Bell tolls for thee. Use formula. Rest case.”

So she dared to sneer at “formula fiction,” eh? Look at her now. Right before my pleased eyes, she has turned into a pillar of salt.

A formula, you see, gets to be a formula because it works, it creates a satisfying reading experience.

A builder follows a blueprint (a formula) so he doesn’t erect a house with the basement above the kitchen. A cook follows a recipe (a formula) to create an angel food cake instead
of a molasses-guacamole-hamburger-pineapple-who-the-hell-knows. A driver follows a map (a formula) to get from here to there instead of winding up past the briar patch near where the
woodbine twineth.

And you’d better hope that your surgeon is following the “surgical formula” when he’s got you on the operating table!

And, you ask, what is that formula?

Ah, there are many variations, but these days I articulate it based on comments that fine writer and teacher Brady Udall, author of THE MIRACLE LIFE OF EDGAR MINT, made in a workshop several years back.

The fiction formula: Interesting things done to and done by interesting people.

Whether we’re talking STAR WARS or that other book of battles WAR AND PEACE, if we’re following the adventures of Starman Jones throughout the galaxy or Inman on his journey back to COLD MOUNTAIN, if we’re learning of the dreams OF MICE AND MEN or the cravings of HANNIBAL, we can see that formula at work.

And in the creation of the “interesting things” and the “interesting people,” there we can utilize our knowledge of craft, our insights of the world, our abilities as—dare I say it—Artists, as we follow the formula.

Nothing to it.

Put it in here and it comes out there.

+++++++++++++++++

(Some of this column originally appeared as the Introduction to J. N. Williamson’s chapbook fiction collection entitled NEVERMORE, published by Maclay and Associates in 1983. I was younger then.)

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

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

The Successful Writer

June 8th, 2006 8 comments

By Mort CastleIn deciding on both topic and approach for my inaugural STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED essay, I decided to follow “Ye Olde Conventional Wisdom” and consider my likely audience.

Some Internetters likely chance upon SU because of a mouse slip on the cyber way to “Pakistan’s Porno Playground” site. There are no doubt some fans of horror fiction who actually intend to come here, perhaps before heading over “Rodents.com” to learn gerbil repair.

But, according to verifiable WWW data gathered by the Office of Homeland Security and the entrails of a now posthumous goat named Cooper Anderson, the majority of STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED readers are internationally renowned writers who’ve won The Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, The Nobel Prize (for Literature, Economics, and Weight Loss) and the Le Boom Younger Poets Of Peoria Competition. They have seen their books become motion pictures, TV specials and cable series, Nintendo, I-Box, and Parker Brothers and games and Smith Brothers Cough Drop premiums, action figures and school lunch boxes and pastel patterns for nursery bed sheets.

Why, Wikipedia, if not common sense, tells us that John Updike, John Grisham, John Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates regularly peruse STORYTELLERS UNPLUGGED. They are successful authors and they want to stay successful authors, so they plug right into UNPLUGGED to pick up the incisive insights of Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, Weston Ochse and (ahem) Mort Castle.

Uh, hold on… Whether they read SU or no, Johns Updike, Grisham, and Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates are indeed successful writers.

So are Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, and Weston Ochse.

So am I.

A BRIEF BUT UNENGROSSING HISTORY OF ONE WRITER (MOI)

I now transition into The Confessional Mode (just like James Frey, except I’m not a goddamn liar) to reveal how I came to be (ahem, ah-hah, tad-dah and hoo-hah!) a successful writer.

History: I sold a novel when I was a junior at Illinois State University. I was 19 years old. It was my first book length publication. (The previous year, I’d published an academic work, an essay on the kenotic themes in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in a journal of undergraduate scholarship). In the next three years, I published three more novels.

Looking back at those novels, they were, at best, smack dab in the low middle of the mid-mid-mid-list books. (Refer to “The Midlist” in Journal of American Ancient History.) They were all right for what they were, “earn while you learn time” for yours truly.

Turned to short story writing. Sold to the men’s mags, Mr., Man to Man, and, just like Stephen King, Cavalier. Sold to literary magazines, Samisdat, Nitty-Gritty, Firelands Arts Review and confessions magazines, Intimate Story, True Story, True Secrets and just about anywhere I sent stories.

In 1976, I sold a novel, The Deadly Election, which merited a glowing American Library Association Booklist review and a three quarter page feature article in the “Entertainment” section of The Chicago Sun-Times. (The Chicago Sun-Times, a major daily in a major city, not The Crudcracker Chronicle of East Offal, Idaho.)

I was on the way to being… A Success.

THE SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR: A DANDY DEFINITION

The successful author has–

–at least one but more likely two bestsellers a year. With sales in the mega-millions, Looking for Miss Good Bra, Mort’s Castle’s sexy, suspenseful, science-fiction horror novel reads like poetry whispered by libidinous angels…

–money out the wazoo. … Castle was briefly hospitalized today for the removal and subsequent banking of several million dollars from his wazoo…

–fame. …Castle discusses his latest, Something Kvetchy This Way Comes, with Johnny and Ed (Publisher’s Clearing House) McMahon…

–All of It. The Big Bonanza. The Entire Enchilada. The Ganse Geschickte.

I was on my way to all that.

Who could doubt it?

I sure didn’t.

I had the goods.

I had a fine agent.

We, agent and I, knew the market(s).

And thus, it came to pass that:

I never had and still haven’t had one bestseller, not a single dollar, Euro, or zloty has ever needed extraction from my wazoo, and those alleged successors to Johnny Carson (it is to laugh) Leno, Conan, and Kimmel would not recognize me if I gave them photographs, DNA samples, and a certified birth certificate proving I was their long lost brother.

Instead of becoming A Successful Writer, I had achieved something far, far different.

That came to me at a classic mid-life crisis time: On my 35th birthday–and this is a vivid memory and I am giving it to you just as it happened–I took a look into the mirror and saw a failure looking back at me.

A failure.

Hey, all you successful writers, or at least some of you, why, you’ve had your brief ventures into the Slough of Despond, nicht wahr, and you managed to come through.

Yeah! When the world hands you a lemon it’s an opportunity to make some lemonade for the soul because when the going gets tough the tough overdose on Xanax and keep a stiff upper lip and watch how many times you get kicked in the ass. Let’s dream impossible dreams and fight unfightable foops and all that bullshit.

Somehow, the time tested clichés didn’t do it for me.

NO SUCCESS LIKE FAILURE, SO GEORGE BUSH IS DOING JUST GREAT

I toughed out my failureness. Positive mental attitude. Little Engine that Could. Johnny Walker consolation. How many times did Edison screw up on the light bulb before packing it in to invent motion pictures? No problem so bad you can’t run away from it.

Had to be something lacking in what I was doing, something I could remedy.

I seek advice. My agent says, “I dunno. I thought we’d have you broken through way before now.” He suggested we part ways. We do.

I bare my heart to a writer who’s had near-bestsellers and seems destined to achieve best-best-bestsellers. “Luck,” says he. “If you have luck, you step outside and the breeze puts a winning lottery ticket in your hand. If you have bad luck, you win an all expense paid trip around the world–on the Titanic.”

“But,” says me, “I don’t have bad luck. I don’t have good luck.”

“Well,” says he, “you’ve got no luck, so you’re doing about as well as can be expected.”

Fortunately, my failure-related depression didn’t last long.

Only eight months or so.

In the period, some interesting events transpired. Selections follow:

Event A. Twilight Zone magazine accepted my story, “Altenmoor, Where the Dogs Dance.” That great editor, Ted Klein, praised it. And praised it. And published it in what was–no question on this one–the best fantasy/horror magazine in the world.

Event B. “Altenmoor” got a fan letter. A woman wrote to say her son had been in a coma for almost four weeks. Because she liked the optimism and hope of “Altenmoor” so much, she sat by his beside and read it aloud to him almost everyday. When he regained consciousness he said, “Where am I and where in the hell is Altenmoor?”

Event C and D and E and more… Well, really repetitions and variations of the same event. My wife, Jane, said, “Don’t worry about the money end of this. I’m earning a regular living. We’ll always be able to pay the mortgage and there will always be food on the table. We’re doing just fine.”

(Not so much of a digression: It was also Jane who shared her interest in Gypsy lore and custom with me. And it is from the Gypsies that I got this saying: “You can have a stable with 100 horses but you’ll still only have one ass to sit on any one of them at a time.”)

Event Whichever: I spoke before an elementary school audience, perhaps some 300 kids. I read them one of my stories. I signed 300 autographs.

At last, a Homer Simpson moment of Epiphany with a capital DOH!

SUCCESS, REDEFINED

To quote that cholesterolic sage Humpty Dumpty (from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, or I Was Just helping Your Little Girl With Her Math) “Words mean what I want them to mean.”

Success… Do we measure it A) solely in terms of numbers; B) in knowing one’s writing is being read and read well by someone to whom it matters; C) with a hygrometer; D) leave the temple, Grasshopper, and don’t trip on the rice paper.

Success… Is it all about $$$$ and how much one can accumulate thereof? If so, the fiduciary rewards are more likely to be laden with fiduch if you write fiction for an advertising company. “Not a cough in a carload!”

Success… Ah, fame… Guess what, pal, if fame is being known, then you are already famous to everyone who knows you. Keep on meeting ten to 20 people a year–the new podiatrist, Jehovah’s Witnesses with The Watchtower, the careless pedestrian who crinkles your fender with his head–and you can even introduce some of them to your writing–and in time at all, you are famous!

Mort’s Post-Mid-Life Literary Crisis Credo (not to be confused with Speedo): The Successful Writer publishes his work, has people who read and appreciate his work, earns money for his work, and is recognized for his work.

According to that definition, John3 Updike, Grisham, and Irving, and Joyce Carol Oates are successful writers.

So are Steve Savile, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, and Weston Ochse.

And so is

Yr mst obdt servant,

Mort Castle