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The Brighton Readings: Part Three . . . Ghettos, Universities, Feesters, & Wonder

November 16th, 2013

The Scop at U of BrightonI was standing on the side of a multi-tiered lecture hall at the University of Brighton when Gina Wisker, one of my hosts for the evening, snapped the picture on the left. I didn’t see her take it. I was preoccupied with the stories I was going to present that night, queuing them in memory, getting ready.

I’d caught a red-eye into Heathrow the night before, spent the day getting to the Brighton Metropole (site of the World Fantasy Convention), and then took a cab crosstown in rush hour to the University’s Falmer Campus. I should have been tired, but I felt focused, ready to go.

My presentation that night centered on the same readings that I would give later that week at WFC, but it also included  reflections on fiction and how a writer knows when his stories are ready for submission.

At the end of the presentation, I collected a stack of questions from the audience. Some I answered there. The rest I took with me, promising to address a few more of them at this blog when I got the chance. That was two weeks ago, so I suppose it’s about time I make good on my word.

As I did at the presentation, I have selected the questions at random.

What are your thoughts on the ghettoization of genre fiction? Why do people dismiss genre fiction?

imdb top filmsThe ghettoization of fantasy and science fiction is much less an issue today than it was in the middle of the last century. We live in an age where genre novels frequently outsell so-called mainstream and literary works, and when movie titles such as Iron Man 3, Man of Steel, Monsters University, Oz the Great and Powerful, Gravity, and Star Trek: Into Darkness rank among the top-grossing films of the year. As for the top grossing films of all time, just take a look at the top-40 list from Internet Movie Data Base (at left).

I guess the takeaway is that today’s genre writers shouldn’t be overly concerned with having their works automatically relegated to a literary ghetto.

And as for those people who dismiss genre fiction? I wouldn’t pay them any mind. After all, we’re not writing for them, are we?

Is academia a good place to develop your writing, or should stories be written for a wider audience?

Dissections_bodyColleges and universities have become friendly places for genre fiction, with plenty of graduate programs offering MA’s and MFA’s in popular  literature.

For the past ten years, I’ve served as one of the residency writers at Seton Hill University’s program in Writing Popular Fiction, and there are many similar programs at colleges and universities across the United States.

I’ve also had the good fortune to work as a consulting editor for Dissections, a peer-review journal specializing in horror literature. Perhaps you’re familiar with that publication. (It’s produced out of the University of Brighton and edited by Dr. Gina Wisker.)

I might also recommend The International Conference of the Fantastic in the Arts, or ICFA. It’s  a gathering of academics and genre writers from around the world, and it’s well worth your time if you can get there.

feestersWhat or who has influenced your writing?

 When I was in my early teens, I bought a subscription to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. When the first issue arrived, it contained a story titled “Bait” by Bob Leman. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever read. Years later, I learned the Bob lived right across town. I got in touch with him, and he became my mentor.

Bob’s writing carrier spanned four decades, but he only produced fifteen stories, all but one of which were published in F&SF. The stories have been collected in the book Feesters in the Lake. Bob didn’t care for the book’s cover when it came out. Perhaps you can see why. (That’s the cover on the right.) Nevertheless, the book stands as the definitive collection of his work . If you can find a copy, buy it.

What draws you to fantasy and science fiction?

FSFThe sense of wonder. It’s the thrills and chills that I encountered when I first read that Bob Leman story back in January 1967. And it’s a desire to pass that experience along to a new generation of readers, which is what I’m going to try to do as soon as I finish this blog post. I’ve got a half-finished story waiting . . . and I’m eager to see how it comes out.

If you have questions or comments about any thing posted here, feel free to let me know. Likewise, please let me know if you’d like to see a follow-up post based on a few more questions from my stack of question cards. You can reach me at the contact buttons above . . . or the comment box below. Always good hearing from you.

That’s it for now. New stories are waiting.

Scop on!

The Brighton Readings: Part One

November 8th, 2013

taking care of business at WFC compressedCall me the warrior scop. Maybe I didn’t battle monsters at this year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, but I did spend some time beating back gale-force winds that rivaled those of England’s Great Storm of 1987. And I did get a chance to wield an artisan-made sword from a dealers-room display. So maybe I was a warrior. Sort of? Humor me.

The scop part might be easier to defend.

I spent my first evening in Brighton at the University of Brighton’s Center for Teaching and Learning, where I read excerpts from Visions and spoke about the process of writing for publication. Arranged by Drs. Gina Wisker and Vedrana Velickovic, the event attracted some enthusiastic students and writers, many of whom submitted questions that I promised to address in an upcoming blog. More on that soon.

After the University reading, I headed south to World Fantasy where I spent most of my time in the Reading Café, a spoken-word venue organized by Martel Sardina. (That’s Martel below, introducing Thomas F. Monteleone.)

Martel Sardina and Thomas F. MonteleoneAmong the Reading Café’s highlights were presentations by F. Paul Wilson, Simon Kurt Unsworth, and Thomas F. Monteleone – three guys that I make a point of catching every chance I get. They’re fine storytellers.

Tom in particular has a style that qualifies as performance art. He doesn’t simply read his stories. He acts them out, assuming the posture and voice of each character – a device that worked perfectly for his Reading Café story: “Yog-Sothoth, Superstar,” from Songs of Cthulhu. Composed as a series of emails, faxes, reviews, and telephone conversations, “Superstar” made for an excellent performance piece.

Flashing the V sign in Brighton

My own WFC presentation took place on Saturday. The audience was terrific, with some of them hanging around afterward to flash their V signs. Great people . . . a terrific time.

Since the reading was recorded, I’ll be back soon with a link and a complete report on my University presentation.

Until then, keep flashing those Vs . . . and scop on!

Have Stories: Will Travel

October 27th, 2013

The Scop Road to BrightonContinuing the tradition of the traveling bard, the 21st Century Scop will be hitting the road this week, heading off to England to give readings at the University of Brighton on Wednesday, October 30 (5:30 PM), and then at the World Fantasy Convention’s Reading Café on Saturday, November 2 (12:30 PM). If you’re going to be in the area, I’ll hope to see you there.

Naturally, I also plan to spend time networking with colleagues at both the University and World Fantasy, taking part in the oldest form of social media – face to face contact.  We are creatures of nuance, and much of what we have to teach to and learn from one another comes across best in real conversation.

It’s the same with story performance, during which skilled readers pick up queues from their listeners and adjust their deliveries accordingly. Therein lies the quality that sets live readings apart from any other story deliver system. When storyteller and audience share the same physical space, magic happens.

Raw Dog Book Route: (A) Michael Arnzen at CMU. (B) Stephanie Wytovich at Big Idea. (C) Matt Betts at Muse Stand. (D) Heidi Ruby Miller at Bradley Books. E) Jason Jack Miller at Eljay’s.

I had a chance to watch this in action last weekend, when Raw Dog Screaming Press unleashed five of their top writers on Pittsburgh, sending them out to present a series of readings at five different bookstores: Michael A. Arnzen at the CMU Bookstore, Stephanie Wytovich at The Big Idea Bookstore, Matt Betts at The Muse Stand, Heidi Ruby Miller at Station Square, and Jason Jack Miller at Eljay’s Used Books. The readings started at 1:00 and continued until 6:00, following a course of some dozen miles.

I caught the last session at Eljay’s, where I settled into the front row while rain hammered the storefront window. Outside it was gray and cold, traffic racing by in a haze on West Liberty Avenue. But inside it was warm and cozy. The perfect atmosphere for a reading.

Jason Jack MillerJason shared a couple of excerpts from the Revelations of Preston Black, engaging the audience with his folksy just-friends-shooting-the-breeze style. It’s a voice that comes across in the writing, but hearing it live really enhances the story’s tone. And the rain tapping the wall of glass behind him added a nice rhythm to the narrative.

Of course, live performance is always an adventure. I’m sure there must have been times when an Old-English scop found himself upstages by distractions in or around the mead-hall. That’s more or less what happened to Heidi Ruby Miller at Bradley Books when a train decided to ruble past Station Square during her scheduled reading slot. No matter. Heidi scopped on, bringing her presentation to Eljay’s and delivering it after Jason concluded his reading, making for a terrific conclusion to the day-long event.

Heidi Rubi MillerHeidi read from her novel Greenshift, which is available through Dog Star books, Raw Dog’s science-fiction imprint.

Other people sighted at Eljay’s were Kevin Hayes, Laurie Mann, Diane Turnshek, and Karen Yun-Lutz – all members of Parsec, an organization devoted to the promotion of literary science-fiction, fantasy, horror and other speculative fictions.

A nice contingent or Raw Dog and Dog Star authors were also there, including Michael A. Arnzen, Albert Wendland, K. Ceres Wright, and Stephanie Wytovich.

Of course, Raw Dog founders John Edward Lawson and Jennifer Barnes were also on hand.

It was a great time, and I wish I could have stayed around for the dinner that followed. Instead, I headed out into the rain and made my way across town to do some scopping of my own at Riley’s Pour House.

Next up, we’ll revisit the topic of flash fiction with some questions submitted by the good people who attended my recent PAISTA presentation. Then I’ll be following the scop road to the University of Brighton and World Fantasy.

Scop on!

Putting the Flash in Fiction

October 6th, 2013

Vestal ReviewWhat makes for a good flash fiction story?

The answer is elusive, even though we know the good stories when we read them. They’re the ones that grab our attention, hold our interest, and conclude with a punch. But there’s more to it than that. There always is.

Next week, I’ll be giving a presentation on flash fiction at the Pittsburgh Area Independent School Teachers Association (PAISTA) conference, held this year at Sewickley Academy, just north of Pittsburgh. I’m currently in the process of assembling my notes, rereading some classic stories, seeking out some new ones, and trying to distill what I think I know into a  presentation about short-short fiction.

I’m having a lot of fun in the process.

ShortestOne story I plan on referencing in the presentation is a 55-word masterpiece by Jeffery Whitmore titled “Bedtime Story.” It first appeared in The World’s Shortest Stories, and it still stands as one of the best examples of flash I’ve ever read. Here’s its first line:

“Careful, honey, it’s loaded,” he said, re-entering the bedroom.

It’s a perfect first sentence, and would-be flash-fiction writers can learn a lot from the way it uses just nine words to effortlessly introduce the story’s characters, setting, and conflict. Moreover, I love the way the sentence compels us to read on, bringing to mind the advice Anton Chekov gave to A. S. Gruzinsky: “One must not put a loaded gun on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.”

Flash 6.1 Front CoverIt’s also worth noting that the story relies primarily on concrete nouns and active verbs. It contains few modifiers and avoids details that don’t contribute to the reveal at the end of the story. Yet the ending surprises and satisfies in ways that make “Bedtime Story” a masterwork of economy and precision. If you haven’t read it, you really should. The book is available in paperback and ebook for well under $10.00 – worth the investment if you’re interested in writing the stuff.

I’ve also been reading some of the genre’s newest entries, stories published in the current issues of The Vestal Review (which bills itself as “the longest-running flash fiction magazine in the world”) and Flash Fiction Online. Both magazines pay professional rates, and their stories are just a few clicks away.  There’s also a print magazine titled Flash, published twice a year by the University of Chester. Highly recommended.

FFOBanner4While you’re perusing the latest stories, be sure to check out “His Brother’s Bite” by Gillian Daniels in the October issue of Flash Fiction Online. Here’s the opening sentence:

Maurice showed me his twin brother by lifting up his shirt and pointing to the teeth growing out of his stomach.

Once again, notice how the author introduces the characters right up front. Stories are about people, not weather or landscape. In longer works, you might be able to open with mood-evoking details or panoramic vistas. (James A. Michener got rich doing that, but he never wrote flash.)

FB-ImagineStill, you will find plenty of flash fiction that opens with landscape and weather. You’ll even find some stories that contain no characters at all. Fredric Brown’s “Imagine” comes to mind, but such works seems more like prose poems than stories (and few writers have the skill to pull it off as well as Brown).

I’ve also been going through my files, digging out some of my own flash fiction from 100 Great Fantasy Short-Short Stories, 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares, 365 Scary Stories, and others. I need to select a couple to present at the conference.

I just hope they hold their own against the stories mentioned above.

Piano-LessonFinally, I’ll be concluding my afternoon at PAISTA with a presentation on the songs featured in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Hesitation Blues,” “Wining Boy,” and “Oh, Lord, I Want You to Help Me” are all referenced in the course of the play, and I’ll be performing them and talking about how they contribute to the work.

Look for a follow-up post sometime next week. After that, you can expect at least two or three entries devoted to my upcoming readings at the World Fantasy Convention and the University of Brighton.

Until then, scop on!

Image Credits:

The Vestal Review Issue 43, “The Eye Opener,” copyright © 2013 http://www.freestockphotos.biz; The World’s Shortest Stories, Running Press Books; Flash Vol. 6 No. 1., University of Chester; Flash Fiction Online banner, flashfictiononline.com; “Imagine” by Frederic Brown, from The Best of Frederic Brown, Del Ray, 1977 (currently out of print), The Piano Lesson, Plume, 1990.