Archive for June, 2010

Plot, or not to plot?

Posted in Writing and words on June 22, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Let me ask you a question: when you write a story or a novel, do you plot it all out beforehand? Or do you have a vague idea to start with and then just start writing, not knowing where it’ll take you or what’ll actually happen along the way?

There is actually no right or wrong way to write a story – it’s all down to personal preference and methodology. For my own part, I come up with an idea for a plot in the most nebulous of terms, knowing how the story will start and sometimes knowing how it’ll end (but very rarely, though). The bits in between I haven’t the foggiest about (but the story seems to know). Most of the time I’ll be surprised: a character who I thought would do one thing will turn around and do something entirely unexpected. Or, where I do have an ending in mind, another one will sometimes present itself, because it may make more sense or it may simply appeal to me as a better ending.

The danger there, of course, is that, should you be working to a specific maximum word-count, it could all so easily get away from you. There have been times with my own writing when little sideplots occur to me that I believe will help explain the story more fully, or add ‘value’ to it, and so off I go, joyfully typing away. The result? What originally was planned as a 5,000 word tale inevitably becomes a 10,000 word one. And no amount of ‘but that’s how long the story needed to be told in’ excuses will wash with an editor if they’ve specifically asked for 5,000 words. Even with my preferred mode of writing, discipline is definitely needed: allied, of course, to experience in knowing HOW to tell a good story (which you can only get through constantly writing).

On the opposite side of the fence, there are some authors who practically plot EVERY SINGLE incident in all that they write. No matter HOW minute the incident is. I believe that George RR Martin plots his epics along those lines (which, presumably, explains the long gaps between books).  In cases like this, authors do this simply because they know exactly what it is they want to say, and don’t want any unexpected deviations from their carefully planned narratives – in other words, it could possibly become a completely different story if they just let it write itself. When all is said and done, however, it’s just another method of working, neither right nor wrong, and neither good nor bad. Different methods work for different writers.

At the recent alt.fiction event in Derby, during a podcast session between the grandmasters of the horror scene, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen Jones, Campbell discussed his experiences with using both of the methods. The upshot of what he was saying was that (and here I am relying on memory) he found less satisfaction using the ‘plot absolutely everything’ method and that the ‘let’s see what happens’ recipe was considerably more fulfilling, as the book he was working on at the time took him in unexpected directions. That in itself was something of a minor revelation to me, as, for some inexplicable and unfathomable reason, I got the impression that successful authors minutely plotted everything out (or at least had a fully worked out skeleton from which to hang the flesh of the story).

For me, plotting everything would be tantamount to being straitjacketed. I am all for spontaneity, something that I actively encourage when I’m painting, for example. In that case, I have a vague, blocky image, and then, whilst I’m actually painting, I work out the details as and when they occur to me. In that way, I believe, the painting comes out ‘fresher’ and retains the feel of dynamism and immediacy far better than something planned. In life, we react to situations in real-time, our courses of action being dictated by what’s happening at any given moment. We can plan for emergencies, but not to such a minute schedule.

Ultimately, though, it IS all down to personal preference, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise. What any writer is aiming for is the best, and if one method works over the other in getting it, then stick with it. Conversely, you don’t need to get all fundamentalist about it – what works successfully for you in all probability won’t work for someone else. Everyone has a way of writing that’s particular to them, as do you. And that, ultimately, is what is so exciting about writing.

Technology & the writer

Posted in Writing and words on June 21, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

No, I’m not going to be waxing mouth-foamingly lyrical here about the latest obscure math-rock band to emerge from Akron, Ohio (although the title of this blog would make a good math-rock band name and yes, there IS such a genre of music – Google it) – instead, I’ll be talking about how technology, specifically the advent of the internet, has helped writers, both aspiring and established, to get themselves and their work ‘out there’.

And, let’s face it, it IS considerably easier to get noticed and send your work out to potential publishers and magazines these days. Some of my regular readers here may know that I once ran and edited a paper-based music fanzine called FRACtured in the late eighties/early nineties, a mere twenty or so years ago.  In its metamorphosis from contacting authors and reviewers, typing up submissions, getting in touch with record companies and such, to final printed magazine, all the communications were done the slow way. It’s hard to imagine for many today, but back then, the technological landscape was very different – computers were barely out of their electronic nappies (diapers to my American friends), certainly PCs were noticeable by their very scarcity (and they were probably relatively expensive and only businesses could afford them then) and the World-Wide Web was still only a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. The main forms of long-distance communication were the telephone (the cumbersome, desk-bound variety – personal and affordable mobile phones were still far in the future) and the humble hand-written or typed letter. And that was practically it (disregarding faxes and telegrams and the like).

What did that mean for writers? Firstly, they had to type out their entire manuscripts (let’s not even get into second/third drafts or rewrites), Tippex correction fluid at the ready, and, when they’d done so, send the typed pages off, in an envelope with sufficient return postage, to the prospective publisher/mag, along with a cover letter. (Some publishers still do this, even today – TTA Press [Interzone/Black Static], for example). THEN, the would-be author simply had to wait until either a large envelope dropped onto their doormat several weeks/months later (meaning it had been rejected and returned) or a smaller one (which meant the story had been accepted – there may even have been a cheque enclosed). Quite a process eh? Involving a lot of time, effort and money, in some cases. One can easily imagine frustration being a constant companion and it wouldn’t be too hard to extrapolate from the foregoing that many just simply gave up after a few attempts – one wonders just how many good writers there would have been had not the process been so tiresome and tedious.

These days, it’s a different story. Write up your story on the computer, in an application like Word, make changes/corrections as you go along, and save it onto your hard-drive. In your breaks between writing, log onto the internet, research places where they might possibly publish your work, note down their email address, and then fire off a quick message, attaching the file to it. Press send. Bits, bytes and all that malarky instantaneously drop into the publisher’s inbox. Sit back, open a cold one, and wait.

Far simpler and quicker, n’est-ce pas? Indubitably, yes, but one still has to wait. Communications can now be done in real-time, however – no longer the routine of receiving a letter, answering it, sending it back and then waiting for the next reply to arrive. Using up a lot of time and pennies for stamps. An editor can now send you a reply, discuss issues, edits and all that gubbins while you consume your coffee and croissant these days at the local internet cafe. And, as a bonus, you can now advertise your latest acceptance to all your friends and fans via the social networking website of your choice just before you pay your bill, too.

Beyond that, of course, there are now dedicated writer’s internet-only sites and forums to which people can submit their literary efforts. Writer’s advice sites, too, as well as agents and publishers now exist on the web. Addtionally, internet companies have  come into existence which help you to publish your own work in book form, cutting out all that difficult bit in between. Add into the mixture the recent phenomenon of blogging and twittering – the writer’s potential reach is enormous. In other words, the world and his misses is now much closer to us all, and it’s a damn sight easier to get your work where you want it to be – in the public eye.

But there is, as always, a downside to the spread and democratisation of technology  – quality control, or lack of it. Just about anyone can set up a website of their own and upload their material to it. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s any good or not, it’s still entered the public domain, for everyone to scrutinise. This can be seen as a both a GOOD thing, AND as a BAD thing. It’s gratifying that people are able to reach out to others, but it can also promote mediocrity. It’s the X-Factor/Pop Idol syndrome at work, possibly – everybody seems to want to be famous (because it’s their RIGHT, apparently), without necessarily having to go through the hard grind to get there. I think the internet encourages that mentality – ‘If I put my work up on a website, someone’ll notice me and track me down to offer me a contract straightaway’. It MIGHT happen, but the probability is that it won’t.

There ARE sites, or so I am led to understand, that will publish whatever gets sent to them, regardless of quality –  a submission here doesn’t help a writer (at least if they write for something other than fun) develop their craft. I would state the opposite is more likely to happen – a writer could develop a false idea of their how good or otherwise their work is. Before anyone think anything, however, I don’t necessarily disagree with places like that – if you just like to write for pleasure, or if seeing your work online brings a smile to your face, then they’re ideal. Writers with serious intentions should just be wary of them, that’s all I am saying. Research is absolutely key here.

It’s simply a case of matching the needs of your goals to the technology available, and then utilising it effectively in order to fulfil them. But as several people have pointed out to me, talent still has to be there to begin with. The measuring rod of whether you have that requisite quality can only come by submitting to publishers and magazines, and gauging their reactions. Asking those outside the circle of family and friends to read and critique your work also helps form an impression of how good/bad your writing is and what you need to do to improve it (networking is very important in this respect). Accepting constructive criticism is absolutely necessary here. If you are indeed serious about your writing, then you will find the best way of getting the ‘net to work for you.

When all is said and done, though, the most important part of writing is actually doing it. Seadily developing your craft and sharpening what’s already there, and always continuing to learn. If you marry that talent with some judicious research, there’s every chance that you’ll get to the place you envisage for yourself.

A matter of scale…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on June 20, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

An aspect of writing that very rarely appears to get mentioned is what I call the ‘scale’ of a story. Eh? you may well ask. Simply put, it’s how ‘large’ or ‘small’  the story is eg. horror tales tend to involve very few people, small groups at the most, whereas fantasy and sci-fi can involve whole worlds (or, in the case of the latter, sometimes whole star systems and galaxies). Why is this? (These are just my own interpretations and meditations on the subject, so just bear with me – feel free to debate, comment, discuss and disagree…)

I’ll take horror as my reference point here. Most stories in this genre take the plight of the individual (or a small group) as their starting points. Even in a situation when the entire globe is under threat from a plague or a zombie invasion, it still often comes down to how a group of people survive and fight against the odds. In the field of film, this is exemplified best by George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead), in each of which small bands of uninfected humans hold out against the ravening hordes in an endeavour to keep civilisation going. Each one of the films focuses in on the interactions, reactions and tensions between the characters, brought about by being under siege by an enemy they don’t really understand. That’s where the horror lies.

Another great example, again taken from cinema, is Robert Wise’s The Haunting (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House). Once again, it involves a small number of people and the effects of unseen presences on the dynamics of the group. The horror here is more personal: the fracturing of both the psyche and interpersonal relationships, something that we, as gregarious humans, fear most. The whole ensemble works just because we never see what it is that causes the haunting. Zeroing in on the characters, people we can indentify with, and their reactions, helps us to latch on to the sheer terror of the situation.

As final exemplars, I’ll turn to literature, specifically a novel and a short story. Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, about a world’s population turned vampiric, concentrates on the last untouched man’s (Robert Neville) efforts to destroy the bloodthirsty ‘monsters’ (although, in the end, he becomes the ‘monster’ hinself). It’s just one man against an entire world, and although it’s considered to be an SF novel, it retains the horror element of how a single being responds to the despair and carnage around him. The short story, When the World Goes Quiet by Simon Kurt Unsworth (from his excellent Lost Places collection), even though it’s about a worldwide zombie infestation, only features a single example of the shuffling undead: it concentrates instead on how one ordinary man copes with the terrifying situation, and the horror comes in what his predicament (and the knowledge he gains from it) ultimately drives him to.

I don’t think horror would necessarily work on a bigger scale, certainly not on the scale of Frank Herbert’s Dune or Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books, for instance. These are both star-system and galaxy (nay, universe) spanning stories, affecting billions of people. Although the dramatis personae that the author concentrates on may not be that much larger than the cast of characters in your typical horror story, their influence, and their actions, have a greater reach, affecting more people as a result. Horror for the most part, possesses a more local authority: fantasy and sci-fi appear to spread that authority much more widely.

Boiling all this down, the point of what I am trying to formulate into words is simply this: it’s worth considering, when devising plotlines for your story/novel, regardless of genre, how best to tell it. Would it be more effective, for instance, if you brought it down into a more personal sphere, or to bring in a huge number of players instead? Just look at music, for example: songs are never set in stone, and can be reinterpreted in many ways. They can be sung to the accompaniment of a single guitar OR can be sung with the backing of a full orchestra. Same song, different effects. However, to many people, there will always be just ONE interpretation of the song, the original. Stories can be reinterpreted in this way, except that I think that there is an optimum way of saying what you want to say. Picking the right ‘scale’ (or not) can make the difference between a rotten, a merely good, or GREAT story.

As I said at the beginning of this piece, these are just my thoughts on the subject. Necessarily there are exceptions to these observations, but generally speaking, I think they hold true and are fairly watertight in their reasoning. What I want to do here is to generate some kind of discussion: as an aspiring writer, I (and by extension, others like me hopefully) would find it useful to get some feedback from those  who have already got both feet firmly through the door. Or maybe it could be that I am just fumbling clumsily in the dark (and not for the first time either). =)

Nostalgia is a funny old thing…

Posted in General Musings, Nostalgia on June 19, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

I can remember, way back in the mists of time, the very book that started me off on the whole horror thing: and the picture accompanying this post is THAT very book. I was about seven years old, and I think I found The Screaming Skulls and other Ghost stories: Elliott O’Donnell (published by Foursquare Horror in 1966) on one of the many bookshelves that festooned my parents’ house. I can’t even imagine why they would have had such a book (although it has to be said my father was fascinated by ghosts: in our little town in Wales there’s a ruin of an Augustinian priory on the banks of the Western Cleddau, which was reputedly haunted by the ‘Grey Monk’ – one of his ambitions was to see the spectre), so I surmise that my brother may have bought it originally. Even back then, I was always drawn to anything with skulls on it, or had to do with the unknown. or things that were emblematic of death. This book, with its promise of being ‘A collection of true and legendary ghost stories’, was tantamount to being caught in a psychic lasso, that slowly but surely drew me in.

I was always an odd child, according to my mother. I DO remember, at four years old or slightly younger, regularly badgering my father to take me round the very local cemetery just down the road from where we lived at the time, just to look at all the lovely gravestones. About twelve to thirteen years ago, not long before my mother developed Alzheimer’s, she told me about the time when, concerned for my mental wellbeing, she consulted our doctor about taking me to see a child psychologist. Why? Because, apparently, I had a habit of creating headstones out of Lego bricks and then planting them in rows in a little patch of bare earth in the back garden. She was advised by the doctor that it was quite normal for a child to ponder about death, even at that early age, and that this was just my way of exploring it.

I then graduated to a fascination with the Ancient Egyptians and their obsession with death and the afterlife. I was forever drawing pictures of Anubis, the god of mummification and the world beyond this one. Not long after that I found the Elliot O’Donnell book, and avidly read it, even taking it to school to read in my break times. It got me into trouble, as Mr. Singh, my primary school teacher, deemed it inappropriate for a child to be reading such matter. I seem to remember my parents saying very much the same thing. I don’t even remember any of the stories in it, all these years later: I just remember the title and the cover, and the effect it had on me.

My other main influence in terms of horror is HR Giger, the Swiss artist. If you’ve seen my artwork, then you’ll be aware of just how strong that influence has been.  I discovered his particular brand of bleakly stifling, overwhelmingly organic visual horror in 1978, when I bought the very first issue of Bob Guccione’s Omni magazine – Giger was a regular contributor to it. I just locked into his vision as soon as I first encountered it and that appreciation of his uniqueness has never left me and has ultimately fed into my own artistic outlook.

But, inevitably, these are the things that have shaped me. In the intervening years I have alternately embraced and rejected the horror and ghost story genres, flitting between many other topics and obsessions, but always coming back to it at some point. I have been blessed/cursed with a butterfly mind, never alighting on a subject for too long – although as I get older I find that flightiness is thankfully disappearing. My last encounter with horror happened in the late eighties and lasted throughout the nineties, with a few excursions in the noughties – and during that time I amassed a huge library of the sleaziest, goriest and (sometimes) questionable films on video I could lay my hands on (including about half the so-called video nasties). Plus, during the eighties I discovered the works of Clive Barker, who brought a literacy to horror that I found absolutely refreshing. His Imajica inspired me to try my hand at writing the kind of material he did: at that point I lacked anything remotely resembling a computer, so wrote everything (all ten pages of it) in longhand. The exercise didn’t last very long, however, especially since several friends said they couldn’t quite get their heads around what I’d written.

But here I am, once again, returning to the horror fold: hopefully this time my residency will be permanent. Certainly, I have got more out of it in six months than I ever did in two years of running my record label. It’s too tempting to say ‘I should have done this years ago’ – that would be far too cliched and far too trite. Things happen when they do and not before. This time, there’s an extra dimension – it just feels comfortable. The stars are right, to borrow a much-overused phrase from Lovecraft. I’ve already had two stories accepted for publication (plus a piece of horror-related artwork), and I only started writing in earnest sometime last year. I have also made a lot of good friends into the bargain.

This year has seen a few circles being completed: the music (see my earlier post about Current 93 and Nurse With Wound) and now my childhood love of ghosties and ghoulies and the obsession with death. Like I say, the stars do appear to be coming right for me at last. Although I’ve often expressed similar sentiments, I have a good feeling about this – only time will tell, though. Stay tuned!!

The Absurdity of Literary Marginalisation

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on June 18, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

This is a subject particularly close to me, and this blog was inspired by something that Ien Nivens touched upon in his excellent guest-blog at JS Chancellor’s Welcome to the Asylum: the question of literary marginalisation. Why is it that ‘alternative’ forms of literary endeavour, like fantasy, science fiction and horror, are not considered by ‘those in the know’ to be real literature, and just why do these very same people automatically turn their collective noses up at the mere mention of them?

When you analyse the situation and strip it right down, it’s just bizarre that this is so, considering that very often the same preoccupations and themes run through both genre fiction and high-brow realist contemporary material, the only difference being the settings and scenarios. Those differences really are minor, when all is said and done: one utilises fantastic, highly unrealistic settings, the other bases it in real life. At bottom, though, there are often more similarities than differences. Even so, this has resulted in a mutual distrust between the two camps.

As Nivens points out, one possible reason for this is that genre fiction is usually seen as the preserve of the socially-maladjusted reader with a reading age barely beyond his/her early teens, the spotty nerd who likes to dress up as his/her favourite character at conventions, speak meaningless gobbledy-gook (at least to outsiders), apparently live in a dreamworld (presumably because this one is so disappointing) and who are still virgins at 40 (again apparently). By contrast, those who read modern fiction are supposedly much more ‘in touch’ and engage with the real world, live ‘proper’, mature lives and therefore the literature they read is closer to the ‘truth’ (whatever that happens to be). When you get down to it, though, it’s all just a matter of interpretation and personal taste, and that’s all it is.

What I DO find surprising (and not a little odd) is the semantic acrobatics that some authors indulge in just to avoid their novel/story being shelved with the genre ‘trash’. Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is clearly a dystopian novel set in the not-too-distant future and deals with many tropes familiar to sci-fi readers: yet she has taken umbrage at it being called such a thing (at least, this is what I am given to understand). From my humble perch here in the Marshall-Jones household, I think that’s just pettiness in the extreme, as if the mere suspicion that it might actually be an SF novel is enough to taint its ‘worthiness’ as a piece of literature. Quite the opposite, I would have thought, as its appeal instantly appears to broaden.

Ultimately however, we all read because we like to spend a little time away from this particular realm of humdrum existence. In other words, we like to indulge in a little spot of escapism. And what is surprising is that many classics, the ones we are encouraged to read because they are considered LITERATURE, are escapist novels, whose premise is based entirely in fantasy. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, HG Wells’  War of the Worlds, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, Sir H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and even Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as just a few instances. All are held up to us as examples of ‘worthy’ literature, essential reading if one is to be considered properly educated.

To be fair though, the apparent snobbery can be mutual – many (not all, mind) genre readers turn their noses up at realist fiction ‘because it shows a lack of imagination’. The literati snub genre fiction just because it’s all based in fantasy worlds, often not even on this planet and peopled by strange races with even stranger names. But what the latter often fail to realise, I think, is that ALL writing is fantasy, even that which is based in the real world, and that it all requires an immense leap of imagination in order to fully captivate the reader. Granted it’s much easier if your novel is set in London rather than on Planet Thong in the Brassiereian Galaxy, involving a star-spanning war between the Thongians and the evil Bocksers. However, the characters in both suffer the same ups and downs on a personal level, and both sets engage and grapple with a similar bigger picture, albeit on different scales.

For my part, I read across many different genres (and this ties in with an earlier post), with an emphasis on horror and science fiction. My main criterion is that the story has to be well-written and literate: and, following on from that, that the characters are believable and engaging, and that the story, above and beyond the narrative and plotline, has something to say to me. All these criteria can be applied to every type of fiction, be it horror, romance or magical realism. The point is, is that GOOD literature exists across ALL genres (and. let’s face it, so does bad), and that it shows a distinctly unbecoming ignorance if you dismiss something simply because you don’t like it or that you don’t understand it. I don’t care whether you’re someone who sweeps the streets or whether you’re a professor of whatever at whichever top university: sniffing at fantasy or magical realism, for instance, just because you despise either, for whatever reason, is the epitome of ignorance and prejudice. Let’s all just think back to when only a minority of the population were able to read – the fact that most of us can do so nowadays, regardless of whether we choose to exercise that skill or not, is nothing short of a miracle.

Lost Places, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

Posted in Book Reviews on June 17, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Horror, at its best, takes the mundane and every-day, and then corrupts it through a distorting lens beyond what it’s built to withstand. The safety of the normal world is left behind, replaced by a tangential, edgy unfamiliarity. Allied, of course, to a heightened sense of skin-crawling fear (but not necessarily gore, although it has its place, but only in the right measure). Each of the eighteen stories in Lost Places, Simon Kurt Unsworth’s first collection (from the excellent Ash-Tree Press of Canada), carves moments out of life, and then stretches them out to beyond their (and the character’s) natural endurance. (Note: in this review not every story will be touched upon, but representative examples will be highlighted instead).

At the heart of Simon Kurt Unsworth’s writing is a temporal and spatial disruption, a dislocation of reality, inflicted on characters whose worlds and realities have been fractured. The veils between this world and the one next door are often much thinner than we bargain for: Lovecraft realised this too, and very effectively utilised the idea in his Cthulhu Mythos cycle. Simon uses this device superbly, bringing home to us that it wouldn’t take much, a twist in space here and a break in the flow of time there, and chaos would surely ensue. This theme is emphatically emphasised by the opener, “A Different Morecambe”, where a simple day-trip to a familiar haunt reveals how fragile reality is: and “The Station Waiting Room”, where a village’s unknown malaise is discovered to have an origin beyond our knowledge and understanding. The disruptive influence in “The Lemon in the Pool” is the all-too human fear of rejection and of not belonging, being out of place and time: “Old Man’s Pantry” is where the veil alluded to is at its thinnest – a runner, practising his sport within a myth-infused landscape, becomes entrapped in a frightening fusion of the two worlds, when a figure out of legend is given the flesh of a terrifying, relentless, unforgiving solidity and reality.

Relational disruption figures prominently in this collection, too: in the “A Different Morecambe” story mentioned above, for example: also, that very real fear, mixed with the unholy prospect of losing someone precious (who is essentially a link to a normal, grounded life), motivates the chilling “An Afternoon with Danny” – a tale that’ll make any parent empathise with the adult character’s situation. “Flappy the Bat”, as well as charting the breakdown of a couple’s parental relationship with their young child, doubles as a cautionary tale: what effect do the programmes our children watch have on their fragile psyches? “Forest Lodge”, superficially a tale of a spectre threatening a young teenage boy, becomes a studied delineation of the fractured, fractious relationships between, principally, a husband and wife (although she’s only alluded to very briefly in the story), and secondarily, between the man and his son. Unsworth builds up the mounting atmosphere of menace magnificently in this particular story – a truly thrilling ride.

Some of them are simply good solid, scary fun, in their own macabre, horrific way. “A Meeting of Gemmologists” reminded me of a segment in an Amicus portmanteau film – fabulous stuff: “Stevie’s Duck” – preposterous as its premise might appear at first glance (a giant, menacing duck terrorising a small boy), actually made me wonder what would happen if nature decided to get its own back on our wilful rapine of its bounty. “The Animal Game” is a brutal meditation on how we see ourselves and how others see us – and yet, there is something blackly humorous about its savage dénouement and the truth of its underlying subtext.  “Scucca”, a story of malign, ill-intentioned forces just out of reach of the mundane world, is simply classic horror storytelling at its best, entirely (and brilliantly) reminiscent of MR James and EA Poe.

However good these tales are, however, there are three stories which are absolutely outstanding, even in amongst what is already a marvellous set. “When the World Goes Quiet” is a sideways glance at a zombie apocalypse, but without the hordes of shambling, shuffling decaying creatures to blunt its utter hopelessness and stasis-inducing fear – how would you cope in such circumstances? “The Baking of Cakes” is, simply, one of THE best short stories this reviewer has read in a very long time – the ending packs more punch than many a book-length novel, made all the more powerful because it inspires sadness and empathy in great measure, and is a tour-de-force of compact writing. Finally, the deservedly World Fantasy Award-nominated “The Church on the Island”, is a tale of, once again, temporal and spatial disruption, but makes much more obviously, chillingly and very weightily the consequences of rending that veil which protects us from the reign of chaos that would doom humanity. Its brightly lit location only serves to highlight its chiaroscurotic nature, throwing into sharp relief just how fragile the dividing line really is, and the malignity of the forces ranged against the world.

To reiterate, horror, at its best, takes the mundane and every-day, and then corrupts it through a distorting lens beyond its prescribed limits. Every story in this collection does that and more, delivering darkly, deliciously condensed thrills and shivers. Simon Kurt Unsworth manages to even make the daylight dangerous, giving it a sharp, steely edge. In these days, where style over content is often the consensual measure of ‘quality’, it’s reassuring that there are still those who swim against the tide, producing original, thought-provoking and deeply satisfying stories. Simon, hopefully, will one day go beyond the small-press and make the jump into the mainstream – he certainly deserves to.

Read the original review here.

Stating the obvious maybe…

Posted in General Musings, Writing and words on June 16, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Back in the late seventies/early eighties I went absolutely mad on guitars – I started to learn to play one (an acoustic – how uncool!) when I was 16 and bought books and magazines on the instrument. In one particular mag (Guitar World) they featured an interview with Sting (The Police were still around at that point) and, having spent the latter part of my teen years energetically pogoing around to punk and new wave, I particularly savoured the interview. All those mags have now gone, lost in the multitude of moves I’ve made over the years since then, and so has the memory of  what was in the article – BUT, there’s ONE thing about it I DO remember very distinctly. Sting gave out one piece of advice that has stuck with me (albeit inexpertly paraphrased here)  – “The best way to learn an instrument is to play in ALL kinds of bands and play ALL kinds of musical styles – even playing stuff you don’t like, as it’ll provide an invaluable musical education”. Being a typical teenager, though, I completely ignored the advice – and, in case you’re wondering, I never learnt to play the guitar properly, discovering I had NO musical talent whatsoever. Which you should all be mightily relieved about.

I have grown older and wiser since then, left the guitar behind permanently and now find that this snippet of sage wisdom can be applied to writing. Or, more specifically, to the background reading one does to help one’s writing. So, you write horror do you? Well, that’s great, but I wonder how many aspiring horror writers read more than just horror.  Certainly reading all you can in your favourite genre will help you develop and understand the dynamics, pacing and atmosphere of storytelling within that style, as well as generate ideas and provide a font of inspiration. However, reading other genres and modes of writing can also help enormously in creating your own unique literary voice.

Okay, so what I’ve just said might be very obvious to some, but, just like I pointed out in my previous blog, there are those to whom it isn’t. I’m not implying that reading around is mandatory, just that I think it would aid enormously in learning about writing and, most importantly, what makes GOOD writing. Styles have necessarily changed over the years: the stultified prose of the 18th/19th/early 20th centuries is completely alien to our modern sensibilities (unless it’s a deliberate pastiche/hommage), but even so the themes and tropes are universal. Modern writing simply reflects the modern versions of the same preoccupations. Even so, the classics of any genre are always worth reading, if only to get a grasp of what has made them so timeless.

In other words, it’s worth reading  material that you wouldn’t normally touch (even if you want to justify it to yourself in terms of ‘this is NOT what I want to write’). I’ve read all sorts in my time – sci-fi, epic fantasy (which I find unreadable these days), experimental, westerns, adventure, thrillers and even contemporary realist fiction. But whatever it is I’ve read, I’ve taken something from it – a slightly greater understanding of what makes good (or great) writing, what makes bad writing, how to keep a reader’s interest and attention, how one author can create something worthwhile whilst another produces something completely forgettable. Yes, it helps that I write book reviews, and that in my capacity as a reviewer I get to read some amazing (and not so amazing) books. Even if I weren’t a reviewer, however, I would still attempt to read as broad a range of material as I could.

The point is, it all feeds in to the literary melting-pot, even if all you want to write are hack ‘n’ slash stories, or high-fantasy epics taking thirty books to reach a conclusion, or galaxy-spanning space operas: reading other genres can fill out and improve what (and how) you write. Surely, what any writer desires is an instantly recognisable style, unique to them: in other words, what comes out at the other end of their reading, their own written work, is a reflection of the spectrum of other voices that they’ve ‘listened’ to. It wouldn’t do any harm to ALL aspiring writers to do the same.

(As an addendum, I would point out that watching TV dramas and film [in whatever genre], in addition to the reading, can also help enormously. Reading comics and graphic novels is another avenue of exploration in this regard. What makes one thing work and not another? How has a writer managed to squeeze a potentially complex story into a half hour TV episode, for instance? Or a thirty page comic? These are often masterclasses of brevity and compact storytelling that aspiring authors would do well to study…)

Market talk….

Posted in Writing and words on June 15, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Something that was brought up recently in a comment on another post prompted me to write today’s little epistle. This may seem blindingly obvious to some, but you’d be surprised how many people appear not to possess this small piece of commonsense: when submitting a story, always make sure that wherever you send it is an appropriate showcase for it. In other words, if you write horror stories then send it to a publisher/magazine that specialises in that genre. If you write fantasy, science-fiction or crime stories, then find people who publish such stories and ONLY those stories. It’s no good sending a fantasy story to a horror publishers, or vice versa, if you want to stand a chance of  it getting published. Constant rejection letters can get you down after a while.

Like I say, blindingly obvious, isn’t it? Sadly, and surprisingly, not to some. I learnt this when I ran a record label: my website and MySpace/Facebook page clearly stated the kind of music genres I was interested in – all that weird, noisy uncommercial stuff that fills a very small niche market. Even so, I regularly received demos from hip-hop artists, country & western bands, soul groups, singer-songwriters in the vein of Tracy Chapman, and pop hopefuls. As you can probably guess, it used to frustrate the hell out of me and there was always a very short trip for the demos from my desk and into my bin. In the end, I just put it down to being an occupational hazard.

What it REALLY boils down to is a lack of research, ie, the people in question never going further than the word Records in the label’s name, (FracturedSpacesRecords, for instance). As soon as they see that word, they assume that the label releases anything (as bigger concerns do) and don’t bother going any further than looking for the address to send things to. It costs money for artists to send out demos (although it IS a lot easier these days with the internet) and so it would seem that more judicious use could be made of that resource by a targeted campaign. All it would take would be to find out what kind of genres the label releases.

But never underestimate laziness. Or just plain stupidity, in some cases. I once had to patiently explain to someone that, although their work was good (it actually was), I wouldn’t be releasing it on my label because it didn’t fit in to the ethos of FracturedSpaces. Their response was ‘if you like it so much, then why won’t you release it?’ – to which the answer was ‘just like there are labels specialising in black metal, for instance, and ONLY black metal, I specialise in certain genres and not others’. Luckily, once I’d explained it they were satisfied with the logic of the answer. That doesn’t always happen, as some appear to take it VERY personally that you’ve rejected their work. How dare you!!

Extrapolating then, a commonsense approach when submitting stories is to do some simple research – decide which genre your story is in, then look for publishers/magazines that specifically cater to fans of that genre. With the advent of the internet, finding these things out is considerably easier now: NOT bothering to do so is simply the height of laziness. Yes, it IS understandable that a writer wants to get that all-important first published story under their belt, but the chances of getting it are increased exponentially if he/she targets the right venues. All it takes is the systematic commonsense approach of doing research beforehand – okay, so it can be tedious, as there are thousands of publications and publishing houses out there, but ultimately any time spent doing it will be well worth the effort.

And one final word: once you have found out which markets to go for, just keep at it. ALSO, and this is VERY important: ALWAYS READ THEIR SUBMISSION CRITERIA. DON’T assume that ALL publishers use the same guidelines. Following the specifics for any particular mag/publication means that you will at least get your story read. If you fail to follow them, very often the submission falls victim to the DELETE button. And if they say not to submit multiple stories, then send just the one. If it gets rejected, then send it elsewhere. All commonsense when you look at it, but in practise very often completely ignored.

DO YOUR RESEARCH!!

Some more books for review…

Posted in Book Reviews on June 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Here are a couple more books that I’ll get around to reviewing within the next however long… these were freebies from alt.fiction, but they definitely look worth digging into:

Kell’s Legend, by Andy Remic (Angry Robot)
Edge, by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot)

Plus, I also got a free preview of Tim Lebbon’s Coldbrook (which looks great), as well as a very nice mini-book perview of the reissued first volume of the Pan Book of Horror Stories. edited by Herbert van Thal and with a new foreword by Johnny Mains… they even made the paper looked aged and yellow – nice touch…. Necessarily, this means that I am going to have to attempt some blaggage to get review copies of said books when they book get properly published… definitely looking forward to wrapping myself around those two…

It happened one sunny day in Derby….

Posted in Events, Writing and words on June 14, 2010 by simonmarshalljones

Derby – I had a friend from there once, who advised me never to set foot within its environs, as it was ‘the closest thing to Hell imaginable’ or so he reckoned. Pulling into the train station I was relieved to see neither fire and brimstone nor burning lakes of flame – instead it looked like your typical post-industrial city of the midlands. Plus the sun was shining brightly and the day promised to be a good one.

I had landed here to attend alt.fiction, a one-day convention devoted entirely to the written word and specifically geared towards the horror, fantasy and science-fiction end of the literary spectrum. The other theme for the day was STAIRS – there were lots of them (and the theme was to be carried over to the hotal later on as well) and all I seemed to do for most of the morning and some of the afternoon was go up and down the damn things.

First thing: registration and the only hiccup of the day (apart from the lack of Guinness). Apparently, my wife was meant to attend and not me. Hasty scribbling out of Liz and then judicious application of biro to insert Simon Marshall-Jones in its place. All was forgiven when the lovely people at the desk gave me free books and stuff. Followed closely by more going up and down stairs.

But it takes more than flights of steps to make a convention swing – there have to be people too. And the very first person I met was all-round top bloke Gary McMahon (who was also the very last person I spoke to at the end of the day – who was at that point a very wobbly all-round top bloke). Not long after that I met Allyson Bird and John Travis, and shortly after that we retired to the bar – which is another theme at conventions apparently…

First event of the day was a podcast between two statesmen of the horror scene, Stephen Jones and Ramsey Campbell, discussing the current state and future prospects for the genre. Excellent stuff, much of which consolidated what I’ve been thinking and also saying in this blog. It’s a matter of knowing what you what to do with your writing and having goals to aim for and then working DAMN HARD to make it happen. Persistence is the key.

More beer in the bar and the meeting of more people, including a brief handshake with Stephen ‘Ghostwatch’ Volk, and more extensive encounters with Graham Joyce, Conrad Williams, Peter Coleborn (who insisted on taking pictures of my tattoos), Sarah Pinborough, Mark Morris and Raven Dane. Then onto a panel moderated by the then-sober Gary, and featuring Stephen Jones, Conrad Williams, Tim Lebbon and Sarah Pinborough. Theme: horror writing and the horror genre. A very highly entertaining hour, which went far too quickly for my liking.

And after that, it was more bar attendance. And I have to admit that I did very little after that except sit downstairs and drank Magners – my excuse? I’d been up since five that morning and lugging all my bags up and down stairs was beginning to seem less appealing than ligging it in the bar. During the course of the afternoon I also met Andy Remic and a few others. Various groups went off to either watch the USA v England footie match or get a curry. I stayed behind in the bar and talked to Martin and his girlfriend (apologies, I didn’t catch your name sorry) about cats, TV shows and a myriad of other things. I also met and talked to Stephen Jones, who also encouraged me to continue writing. Then, feeling a little worse for wear, I staggered to a taxi rank, got shouted at by a Neanderthal in a car (apparently I had ‘fucking issues’), and finally made it to my hotel, the Kedleston Country House Hotel.

Nice place, in the middle of nowhere and peaceful…. night receptionist was great and made me feel welcome. Different story the next morning – the girl on duty looked at me as if I were a piece of shit that she’d trodden in. Thought about saying something but didn’t – just wanted to get home by this point.

But that’s not what alt.fiction was about. The upshot of the whole weekend though was this: I’d met some very cool, friendly people who instantly made me feel very much at home. and very welcome. Even better was coming home yesterday and these very same people leaving nice comments on my Facebook statuses. Out of all the things I have been involved with over the years, I have never felt quite as at home as I felt on Saturday, in amongst writers. Never imagined that I could possibly be friends with people whose books I’d been reading. Plus, what I DID glean from the events I saw was that I have immense hope for my future as an author – I came away with ideas and enthusiasm all over again, plus I have a fantastic idea for my latest story as well…

Roll on either York or FantasyCon2010, whichever comes first!!

My thanks go to Gary, Allyson, John, Graham, Conrad, Peter, Sarah, Mark, Stephen (both Volk and Jones), Andy, Pixie, Martin and girlfriend. Also, thanks must go to the organisers for putting the whole event on in the first place. If I’ve inadvertently forgotten anyone, please forgive me. But sort that Guinness problem out for next time!!

Most of all though, I want to thank Liz. my wife, for funding the trip…. without you I would never have made it…. =)