Five For Writing – Robert Ford

Robert Ford is cooler than you. That’s OK, he’s cooler than just about anybody, In addition to having written genre masterworks like The Compound and The Last Firefly of Summer, he’s collaborated with John Bodden on a series of novels and he’s widely known as a superb live reader. It was my great good fortune to get to hang out with him during the recent Scares That Care AuthorCon, and to get him to agree to sit down for five questions. So here they are, Five for Writing with Robert Ford.

1-You’ve described your new book as “brutal”. Why go there?

When I started writing Burner, I was on the verge of completing two projects and hadn’t decided what I was going to work on next. I sat down, flipped through my idea notebook, and came across several things I knew were novel-sized concepts. I wrote some notes down on each, but with Burner, the notes grew and grew until I’d written down about fifteen pages of material. It (no pun intended) ignited something and the next day, I became a man obsessed. I generally am not a very fast writer, but I wrote the first draft of Burner in a month. At times, it felt like I couldn’t possibly type fast enough to get the words down. The “brutal” part of the novel…it came with the territory of the novel’s content, and even so, I cut about twelve-thousand words from the draft because it felt “too extreme”, even though it was based on real case studies I read when I was doing research.

2-You’re renowned as one of the best readers in the business. What’s your secret?

I have been lucky enough to witness some of the best readers when I was first starting out, and not long after, witnessed some readings that were quite the opposite. I suppose I paid attention to the good and bad and began applying that to my own readings. And practice. Practice, practice, practice. Listen to your voice and how it projects, the cadence and rhythm of words. Plus, it helps to love doing live readings, and I always have.

3-You’ve notably collaborated with John Boden on Cattywampus. What’s your process for collaboration, and is it easier or tougher than writing solo?

Yeah, John and I worked together on Rattlesnake Kisses, Cattywampus, and are finishing up Black Salve. For us, we start with a general core of an idea, and then dive right in. We don’t outline and though we occasionally touch base on the storyline to maintain overall direction, we pretty much throw a chapter or two at each other, and then take turns. It’s an absolute blast and sometimes we’ll throw each other challenges, but it’s all in good fun. I can’t say it’s tougher or easier than working solo, but we’re both having a great time doing it.

4-You mention on your web page that your stories can make readers cry.

Do you prefer that or horrifying them? I used to run my own advertising agency for years, and when I was developing campaigns, one of the things I always focused on is making sure I hit an emotional nerve or it falls flat. I feel that way with my written work as well. So pulling their heart strings, and scaring the hell out of them right after makes a good pairing for me. I also think humor and horror are great mates as well.

5-What’s your favorite book that you’ve written, and why?

I’m very proud of Burner, because it is such a very different novel for me and seems to be resonating with readers in such a great way. I have a supernatural novel out on submission called Dead Pennies that I think is going to shake readers up and make them sleep with the lights on. But my favorite is the one I’m working on now, titled Domino. It’s early, but this “feels” big, and I’m forcing myself to slow down so I can do the story justice. Everyone will be hearing a lot more about that soon.

Five For Writing – Jeremy Megargee

A rising star in the world of extreme horror. Jeremy Megargee is one of the nicest, sweetest guys you’d ever want to meet. A literary craftsman who deftly wields chills as well as gross-outs, Jeremy shares a table of contents with me in Counting Bodies Like Sheep. Yet despite that, he’s still willing to speak to me. Here’s Five For Writing with Jeremy Megargee.

1-How does someone who’s a professional caregiver get into writing horror?

I’ve worn a few day job hats in my life, caregiver most recent, and prior to that I was a security shift supervisor/bouncer at a large casino. I don’t mind so much what I do for a living as long as it’s a tolerable environment/wage, but I’ve been passionate about writing horror since I was a little boy. The darker side of life has always been in my blood.

2-Mothman: Threat or menace? Or just a statue with nice abs and a great ass?

He’s both a threat and and a menace, but his booty cheeks are just as powerful as his wings. If you hear a flapping and clapping in the WV hills, Mothman is somewhere about. Bridgett Nelson, Jeff Strand, Lynne Hansen, and Damien Casey can back me up on this one.

3-What impact does living in West Virginia have on your writing?

A huge impact. I think Appalachia is unlike any other place in the country. Pockets of isolation, valleys locked into green mountain barriers, and rural blue collar folk that are almost a throwback to an earlier era when coal was still king. Massive forests & people living hardscrabble lives. I love to write about those things.

4-What’s the appeal of writing werewolves?

They’re my favorite supernatural creature. I think what appeals to me most is the nature of duality. The animalism behind the veil. We all have those primal instincts, and in werewolves, we can explore them fully. That’s what I took great pleasure in doing with my novel Old Hollow.

5-Do you prefer using traditional monsters or making up your own?

I can play with the old tropes, the pioneer monsters that paved the way and have established lore, but I think creating something unique that we haven’t seen before can be special. I play with some outlandish monster concepts in my short fiction.

Five For Writing – Michael G. Williams

Versatile and talented, Michael G, Williams is the winner of the 2020 Manly Wade Wellman Award, an honor which he richly deserved. He’s also the the author of the Withrow Chronicles, a series of books about a vampire living in modern North Carolina, a series of time-traveling adventures featuring the legendary Emperor Norton, and more. He also co-hosts the deliriously enjoyable Arcane Carolinas podcast, and he’s a staple on the North Carolina speculative fiction scene. It is my pleasure to present to you Five For Writing with Michael G. Williams.


1-Why vampires? And why in North Carolina?

I always (only?) want to write about the queer experience in some way, and vampires are the perfect metaphor for how I want to represent my own experiences as a gay man. They’re always among humans but never quite of them and never quite free of them. They might choose to “pass” as human, they might not, and mostly I imagine they would find themselves negotiating that choice contextually, night to night, moment to moment, century to century. They have a secret truth they know many people actively fear and would readily attack them for revealing, and sometimes they most feel themselves only in situations they feel they must never reveal for fear of facing hatred. Each of those aligns in some way with significant elements of my own experience as a gay man living in a cishet world. From the first time I read Interview with the Vampire (may Anne Rice rest in well-earned peace), I’ve always seen vampirism as a useful mirror for reflecting back some of my own life as a queer person. 

As for why NC, in part because I’ve lived here all my life and know it so well. Locations are easier to capture and convey when we’ve literally been there, and every book in The Withrow Chronicles is about a place I know well from firsthand experience. But also North Carolina because I love fish-out-of-water stories and the idea of a vampire getting by in the southeastern United States was a great chance to present several different takes on that and set up some interesting tension. Compelling characters, for me, always start in a place of untenable circumstances. Right out of the gate I want them in a place (literal or otherwise) they can’t  stay. A vampire in suburban North Carolina would be running huge risks that might not even occur to us–or to them. The southeastern United States is a place where religion can be especially acidic and deviation from the mean can be met with especially sharp suspicion. That’s also true of the suburbs, regardless of region. I wanted to play with the idea of a vampire living in a suburban neighborhood with all the nosy neighbors and big box stores and everything else that involves, and how he handles it when his truths run headlong into the polite fictions of those environments. Vampire stories are almost always about some equivalent of the monster in the castle on the hill, whether that’s a literal castle or a skyscraper. I wanted a story about a guy who drives a regular car and writes his own check to pay his power bill, not some jetsetting bloodsucker. We have enough jetsetting bloodsuckers in reality.

2-You won the Manly Wade Wellman Award. How has that affected your life?

The biggest thing is that it gave me much-needed confidence to write my weird little stories and not constantly question my own instincts for topics and tone. A Fall in Autumn is a book I felt was uniquely “me” in that it includes some of my favorite flavors and inspirations and genre elements, and when I wrote it I remained absolutely convinced no one else would ever connect with it. Instead, this helped me really learn the lesson that people connect best and most with the stories that speak to us as writers. I used to respond to people who asked me about The Withrow Chronicles by saying, “Well, they’re not for everyone,” and I still think that’s true of everything else I write but the Manly Wade Wellman Award made me much braver with writing what I want to write and feeling confident it will be for someone. It’s also made it easier for me to try to find that someone who will really connect with it. I contend with both generalized anxiety and social anxiety and have never allowed myself to do much promotion out of fear of imagined negative consequences. The validation from winning the Wellman has allowed me to finally start working my way out from behind some of that. 

Hand in hand with promoting myself, it gave me a little more of a platform to highlight other writers in the region who are also doing absolutely stunning work. Getting to announce the next winner at ConGregate in 2021, and having it be my friend and colleague Natania Barron, and to have some small role in recognizing her work, and the work of T. Frohock, who was a finalist and was also there, is a real privilege.

3-What is the Arcane Carolinas podcast, and what inspired it?

Arcane Carolinas is SO FUN! My friend and co-host Charlie and I talk about legends, lore, obscure history, and modern oddities found in North and South Carolina. (We originally described it to others as “The X-Files of the Carolinas.”) We’ve talked about everything from the Devil’s Tramping Ground to the Brown Mountain Lights to UFOs over Myrtle Beach to the Ghost Hound of Goshen Hill, South Carolina, and yet there is so much more to discuss! Every location in the Carolinas has something fascinating just under the first coat of paint or the first inch of earth: hidden history, a forgotten story, a local monster, a legend people mostly only hear in a song, you name it. We’ve done episodes that are hard science and episodes where we dig into census records to find out who a figure really was and episodes where we are 100% certain the whole thing was made up, and we’ve loved every one of them. Every place in the Carolinas has a story to tell–more like ten or twelve stories–and I will never get tired of unearthing those and seeing how they shine in the moonlight.

The story of its origins is funny, though, at least to us. Charlie and I used to work together. We already were making a podcast as part of our job, so we knew the tech and we knew we had a good rapport, a good dynamic. Through a series of other people’s departures and desks getting rearranged we wound up in cubes next to each other off on one end of the office, far away from everyone else, which allowed us to let our guard down and admit to enjoying this stuff and really bonding over that. Also, making a show about something purely for fun was a great way to have something to look forward to early in the pandemic and to grow a new community around something we all love. 

4-You bounce around genres quite a bit, from horror/urban fantasy to lighthearted time travel to science fiction noir. Is there one that speaks to you more than the others?

Oh, I think I’ll always be most interested in vampires and in detectives. (I will, eventually, write a vampire detective.) The vampires and witches who populate The Withrow Chronicles are always in the back of my head, whispering ideas, telling me what they’ve been up to. When the pandemic started, they were the characters I found my mind wandering toward, letting myself noodle around with, wondering how they were coping. (In the case of the vampires, at first they sort of scoffed at how some mortals rejected meaningful precautions that impose no real hardship; eventually they got depressed about what this might mean for the world they plan to live in forever. The witches do a much better job of keeping each other in good spirits but are extremely frustrated at the way magic can’t readily cure a problem of science.) I love all my characters and all my books, but the world I know I’ll go back to some day is The Withrow Chronicles. That’s the one I’m likeliest to grow into an expanded universe of novellas. It’ll just… be a few years.

5-What inspired you to write about Emperor Norton?

Norton embodies so much that is good and so much that is terrible about America, and about the struggles faced–and rewards reaped–by anyone who sets out to make themselves into someone they’ve been told they can never be. Here’s this guy who was king of the hill, a member of the most prestigious social club in San Francisco at the height of the gold rush, trading commodities in such volumes and so shrewdly that he had a very good chance of personally cornering the market on rice, a basic food staple heavily relied on by everyone else in the city. He was one part Dallas, one part tech-bro venture capitalist, and one bad break later, one too-ambitious overreach, he was destitute and totally vanished from the public eye. 

A few years later he walked into the offices of a newspaper, bought a small ad, and used it to declare himself Emperor of the United States and began issuing edicts. Rather than become some bitter, angry person willing to do anything and hurt anyone to get back into that position of privilege, he became a champion of the marginalized. He physically intervened on multiple occasions to stop racist attacks on people of color. He spoke out in favor of desegregating city transit, in favor of women’s suffrage, in favor of building a bridge to connect San Francisco and Oakland, and against judicial discrimination against poor people. City police were instructed to salute him when he passed. Theaters would reserve the best seat in the house on opening night, and if he attended the audience would rise at his entrance. He ate for free in restaurants, he attended lectures in science and medicine. He sold his own imperial treasury notes–and conveniently died a month before they could be redeemed. His image is still found all over San Francisco. 

He also wore a mismatched wardrobe of donated clothing and discarded military uniforms and lived in a six-by-nine-foot room in a boarding house where he perpetually struggled to pay a pittance in rent while street vendors sold dolls in his likeness to tourists. People loved the idea of Norton, but the average person who might rise in a theatre or salute him on a city street did precious little to actually help him survive.

Norton spent the last two decades and change of his life scraping to get by and being a cultural force so powerful, and a voice for change so strong, that here we are talking about him a century and a half later–and still struggling with the same issues he tried to get his contemporaries to face. In a city where the neighborhood with the highest rates of homelessness and poverty (the Tenderloin) is bounded by a high-end shopping district (Union Square), startup-offices and tourist attractions (Market Street ), luxury mansions (Nob Hill), and the city’s palaces of government (Civic Center), the story of Emperor Norton is still powerfully relevant. 

Norton consciously chose to remake himself, his identity, how he presented himself to the world, and the treatment he would accept as respectful afterward. Again, everything I write is ultimately going to touch on queer themes or otherwise reflect some aspect of the LGBTQIA+ experience as I live it and understand it, and I think a lot of queer people can see something of ourselves in Norton’s story. We do find ourselves culturally powerful, but many LGBTQIA+ people are otherwise politically, financially, and socially marginalized. We grow up in a world that tells us we can’t be who we are, and the more we work to realize who we know ourselves to be–the more we wield that cultural and personal and I’d even say spiritual power–the harder it becomes for us to “make it” in any other realm. Norton’s story is one of powerful personal vision and agency and of being an object of pity, even scorn. I will never not be fascinated by the lessons he can still teach us today.

 

Many thanks to Michael for giving such thoughtful answers. Check out his books and his website, and you’ll be glad you did!

Next week, I have the pleasure of sharing with you a Five for Writing with Steven Mark Rainey! Until then…

 

Five For Writing – Tony Tremblay

Tony Tremblay is one of the nicest people in horror fiction. He’s also extremely talented, as evidenced by his novels The Moore House and new title Do Not Weep For Me. An accomplished artisan and the host of The Taco Society show, he was kind enough to sit down for five questions on woodworking, being the house photographer at NECON, and more. Without further ado, here’s Five For Writing with Tony Tremblay.

1-What got you into writing fiction?

I’ve loved reading horror fiction since I was a kid. Authors like Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Shirley Jackson made huge impressions on my young mind. As I grew older, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Bentley Little, and Graham Masterton to name a few, led to an obsession with the genre. Since I have been old enough to read, I’ve always wanted to write a horror tale, but I knew I didn’t have the chops. I was in my mid 50’s when I learned our local library had a writer’s group, and I decided to join. I had no illusions of fame or wealth, I simply wanted to write a story that would scare people like my literary heroes had, and hopefully, have it sit next to their works on someone’s shelf.  

2-You’ve got two novels and two short story collections out. What’s next, and which format do you prefer more?

What’s next is a hybrid of the two—a novella. It’s a Halloween story in a collection of novellas which will be released around October. My contribution, Orange Eyes, is the tale of a taxi driver and a woman, unknown to each other, who have had their memories erased. As he and a new friend attempt to piece his history together, it’s eventually revealed that babies, sex, and the destruction of entire towns are connected to his memory loss.

As for a preference, I enjoy both, but short stories are harder to write. In a short story, a reader expects to have an engaging beginning, a non-cluttered and exciting middle, and a satisfying ending, and that’s tough to do in under 5,000 words. I enjoy that challenge. A novel gives me more space to accomplish those things so in a way, it’s easier to write. If pressed, I would pick writing a novel over a short story.

3-You do a lot of woodcraft. How does that compare to writing as a creative outlet? Is there any crossover?

Great question! Many of my ideas when writing a story come to me as I’m doing mundane chores, and I don’t flesh them out until I sit at the computer. Woodcrafts are the opposite, they must be well planned out in advance, keeping the construction and the painting in mind. Only after I’ve figured out how to make a craft, does the work becomes automatic. I use that time to analyze whatever story I’m working on, thinking about plot holes and direction. As for crossover, I normally make non-horror woodcrafts, but I did make a limited series of zombie snowmen once. 

4-You are the unofficial house photographer for NECON. Why and how did you pick up that mantle?

When I went to my first NECON, I took some pictures because I wanted to capture the faces of the horror authors who’s work I enjoyed so much. Later, when I posted them on Facebook, I was surprised by the response. Every year after that, I got to know more people, including other fans, so I took more pictures. At that first NECON, I think I took around 80 pictures, at the last NECON, I took over 650. All the good, and some not so good, pictures get posted to Facebook within days after the con. In my case, it seems to prolong that family feeling we all felt at NECON for a few more days.

5-You’re an avid reader. What do you look for in a horror novel?

I want the beginning of the novel to bowl me over. I’d like it to invoke primal instincts, whether they be fight, flight, sadness, empathy, or fear. In simpler terms, I want the beginning of a tale to put me through an emotional workout. It doesn’t have to be horrific; I only want to feel something worth pursuing before I get to the second chapter. Once I’m involved with the novel, I’d like to read realistic dialog, multiple points of views without repetition, and action scenes that go beyond visceral. What I don’t want in a novel is to have to use a thesaurus every page, and to read endless amounts of internal musing or exposition. 

 

Big thanks to Tony for his time and thoughtfulness! You can find him online at his website. Until next time, when I’ll be talking to Manly Wade Wellman Award winner Michael G. Williams!

Five For Writing – Bracken MacLeod

Bracken MacLeod writes some of the most gut-wrenching horror and suspense out there. He’s also one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. The author of Stranded, Closing Costs and more, he is fearsomely bearded and awesomely gifted. This week, he sat down to answer five questions about subjects as diverse as gaming and toxic masculinity. For your reading pleasure, I give you Five For Writing with Bracken MacLeod.

 

1-What drives a man to give up a perfectly reputable career like the law to focus on something as disreputable as writing?

HA! The reputability of law is questionable at best. They’re both essentially storytelling professions. I wish I could tell you that a trial is a quest for the truth; it’s anything but. There isn’t a jury in America, or probably the world, that deliberates with true detachment based solely on the quality of facts presented in evidence. People want to be persuaded by a narrative and a character they can relate to and believe in. Trying a case is taking arguable facts, and attempting to build a story around them so to convince twelve people they ought to buy your version over your opponent’s. Given the kinds of cases I used to handle, I much prefer making up my own stories with purely imaginary stakes. As a writer, if I tell the tale unconvincingly, the worst that happens is a poor review.

2- Toxic masculinity is a theme you’ve examined in your work. Why did you choose to explore that?

Since I don’t write about supernatural monsters as much as I do real people in variably plausible situations, toxic masculinity is the kind of antagonistic force that haunts my imagination most when I’m imagining horror/thriller narratives. I think Bell Hooks put it perfectly when she wrote, “[A boy] learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self- betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.” My newest book, Closing Costs, confronts this by depicting someone who is abusive and violent, but also completely unprepared for his manhood to be challenged or outdone in any way. His fragility is the source of his violence and suffering for everyone around him.

The consequences of a toxic derangement of the essence of a man’s emotional and intellectual wellbeing are at once as predictable and unpredictable as a game of Russian Roulette. Here’s something inerrantly destructive. We know that gun is going to go off eventually. What we don’t know is exactly when, or who is getting killed. Let’s play!

All of my books are issue driven. You don’t have to be tuned in to any particular issue to enjoy them, but if you are, I hope it helps the reader view something from a perspective that provides some insight.

3-You’ve published two highly successful collections of short fiction. Do you prefer short stories or novels, and why?

Novels, by far. They’re easier. I’m only partially kidding. Short stories are fun and I get to explore themes and situations I couldn’t in commercial novel length work, but what I really like to do is deep dive into emotional character experiences. The best place for me to do that is over the course of a novel. A short story and a novel can both have real hard impact, but I find it a lot harder to make that moment of emotional resonance really hit hard when you’ve barely gotten a chance to know a character.

4-You’re an avid gamer. What’s the appeal of gaming to you?

The biggest attraction is collaborative story-telling. I DM a 5e D&D game for my son and wife and some friends of ours, as well as an irregular Mörk Borg game with a bunch of other writers in my social circle. (Sometimes I get to be a player, but not often.) It’s such an amazing time to sit with engaged friends and create stories together. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was eleven or twelve, and had to take a long hiatus from play while I was practicing law (another reason to quit!). I never realized how much I missed it until I decided to try to teach my kid how to play.

I play video games too, but that’s a different animal. It’s participatory, but not all that collaborative when it comes to story. Then again, sometimes, you just gotta run and gun through waves of space demons with glowy swords.

5-What do you want to see in horror fiction that you haven’t seen yet?

That’s such a difficult question. Mostly, I want to see more of what I’ve seen too little of—stories that center the people and traditions that don’t often get the spotlight in traditional horror. Films like Get Out, the new Candyman, and The Vigil are perfect examples of what we need a lot more of in literature as well as cinema. Stories about traditionally overlooked people and cultures in their own stories, instead of as side characters and “exotic” threats for the same kind of protagonists we always see.

 

Huge thanks to Bracken for taking the time to give such thoughtful and thought-provoking answers! Until next time…

Five For Writing – Todd Keisling

Devil’s Creek is a stunning novel, mixing backwoods folk horror with Lovecraftian cosmicism. Its author, Todd Keisling, is a great guy and a very talented writer. He was kind enough to sit down for a five question interrogation, and so without further ado, here’s his Five For Writing

 

1-How did you get into writing?

I think it’s been in my blood for as long as I can remember. My dad has a photograph of me sitting at my granny’s typewriter when I was six or seven years old. Storytelling is something I’ve always done, no matter the medium. My interests varied throughout childhood, but there was always a creative element to it, and I gravitated toward making something and giving it a story. Comics, video games, movies, books—I went through a phase where I wanted to make something with each, either making up my own stories or writing continuations of other stories I loved. When I was in 2 nd grade, I made a comic adaptation of The Legend of Zelda. In 4 th grade, I attempted a comic adaptation of Evil Dead 2 (one of my favorite horror films). Sometime around 7 th or 8 th grade, I tried to write a novel adaptation of Final Fantasy 6 (I made it as far as the World of Ruin). Unfortunately, those early pieces of fan fiction are lost to time, but that’s where it all started, I think. By the time I got to high school, my interests had turned to film, and I wrote a short screenplay for a story that had been bouncing around in my head after the tragedy at Columbine. My senior year, I adapted that script into a novel; the following year, in college,
that novel won 2 nd place in my university’s writing contest. Got paid $200 for that prize. I’ve been chasing the dream ever since.

2-How does where you live affect your writing?

Where I live now doesn’t have much of an impact on my writing. Pennsylvania has been mostly good to me. That said, growing up in Kentucky greatly affected my writing, something I’ve only come to terms with in the last five years or so. Maybe it’s therapy, or maybe it’s just the process of aging, but I’ve spent a lot of time looking back at the events that shaped me into who I am today. I lived in Kentucky for 22 years before I finally escaped. In that time, I learned everything the hard way, growing up as an outcast, geeky goth kid who wanted a place to fit in. I was bullied, mocked, and abused by a social system that favored conformity, sports, and popularity. I just didn’t belong there, and I didn’t have a chance to leave until after I’d finished college. My life has only improved since then, but I dip back into that well of experience whenever my writing calls for it, because that kind of pain has an often-overlooked benefit: empathy.

3-You mixed the rural and the cosmic to great effect in Devil’s Creek. How did you come up with that pairing?

I fell in love with cosmic horror when I was a teenager. Lovecraft, mostly, and some Chambers. Although Lovecraft’s pantheon captivated me, I had a hard time relating to the predominantly New England setting, and I sometimes daydreamed about writing a cosmic horror story set in my hometown. What if there’s a pantheon that exists adjacent to Lovecraft’s, only instead of it being coastal, it’s further inward? Something ancient buried in the woods instead of buried at sea? A living, seething corruption from another dimension instead of a massive tentacled monstrosity. I stewed on that concept for years until the plot of Devil’s Creek finally came together. I had no idea if it would work; it’s so vastly different from contemporary cosmic horror, leaning more into the small-town tropes put in place by King (by design—Salem’s Lot was a huge inspiration), but I had to give it a shot. The book is more straightforward horror than I’d hoped, but I’m happy with the result.

4-You do cover art and design for numerous publishers. Does being an author impact your process for that?

I think so. I’ll explain, even at the risk of sounding pretentious. Every author knows the cover is important. It’s that first impression with a reader, before they’ve even read the synopsis, so the cover design must make that connection. It should be provocative, easy to read, attention-grabbing. You could argue that a great cover is like a good hook in the first paragraph. The same goes for a book’s interior. I approach the interior with the goal of continuing the “visual conversation” that begins with the cover. If it works the way I hope, the reader is met with a visual experience that is contextual with the story they are reading. Most folks probably don’t even notice, or if they do, it’s on a subconscious level, but the idea is to create a design that enhances the mood of the text. Together, they set an expectation that this book is going to be something special, one the reader will remember for years to come. Knowing how important that connection is from an author’s perspective helps inform the overall design.

5-There was a big gap between books two and three of the Monochrome trilogy. What made you decide to pick that back up?

So, there’s a short answer and a long answer. The short answer is, I didn’t plan on it being a trilogy. The long answer is, I didn’t realize I needed to write a third book until performing some necessary and heavy revisions to book two. My longtime editor, Amelia, put it bluntly: either write another two hundred pages to justify the ending I’d originally written for book two, or write a third book. I chose the latter and proceeded to spend the next several years stressing over what the third book needed to be.

As more time passed, the less I felt inclined to write it, and for a long time I told myself I wouldn’t. I’d moved beyond the series, my writing had evolved, etc. But after I finished Devil’s Creek, I felt like I’d reached a watershed moment in my writing career, and I wanted to start the next phase with a clean slate. That meant finishing that one book I’d abandoned. I reviewed my notes to see what could be salvaged, which turned out to be more than I expected. I also made a list of things that had to change in the first two books to make the third work. In the end, I revised books one and two to set up the plot of the third. It was a lot of hard work and heartache, and while I don’t plan on writing a linear series ever
again, I’m glad I finished it. I can look back with pride and say, “I did that.”

 

So there you have it, straight from the source. Huge thanks to Todd for taking the time to provide such thoughtful answers.

Until next time!

Five For Writing – P.D. Cacek

A winner of the Bram Stoker and World Fantasy awards, P.D. Cacek is a superb, versatile author who just happens to keep a mannequin named Sebastian by her desk at all times. (More on him below). I have known her for well over twenty years, ever since she agreed to write a short fiction piece for me back in the White Wolf days, and she doesn’t hold that against me. Witty, wise and wonderful, here’s Five For Writing with P.D. Cacek.

(Just cover your ears when you get to the last question. Trust me.)

1-Werewolves or vampires? Which do you prefer and why?

Hmmm…hard choice, but I think I prefer werewolves over vampires…and that’s not because my grandfather was from the Carpathian region of Romania and sounded like Bela Lugosi, or that I’m allergic to garlic and have a tendency to burn in the sun. It’s not. Really.

Vampires are fine, but they tend to be a bit more arrogant about themselves and their needs, seeming to delight in the hunt and flaunting their total disregard for their formal corporal selves (unless I’ve written them*). Okay, so you’ve lived centuries…get over yourselves. I feel werewolves, even though they are monsters, still retain more of their “humanness” for the simple reason that not only are as much a victim of their curse as the poor (slow) souls they hunt, but are doomed to live with the knowledge of what they have become. They have no power to
fight the transformation that turns them into ferocious, ravening beast (again, unless I’m writing   them**).
And the fact that I sometimes get a little twitchy around the time of the full moon and love my steaks so rare they might be could be considered bleeding has nothing to do with my answer. Really.
[* NIGHT PRAYERS, NIGHT PLAYERS. ** CANYONS. Yes, they’re plugs…sue me.]

2-You bounce back and forth between Colorado and Pennsylvania. Which is more conducive to horror writing?

Although I do the majority of my “keyboarding” in Pennsylvania where my desktop computer is, I have been known to grab a pen (!) and legal pad (!!) and write longhand (!!!) in Colorado. It doesn’t matter where I am when inspiration strikes, and I’ve used both states as backdrops. [Stand by for another plug] I set SECOND CHANGES in both CO and PA, (CA for SECOND LIVES) and while bunny-sitting in the small mountain town of Nederland, Colorado (Home of Frozen Dead Guy Days) used it—modified for creativity’s sake—as the setting for my current work in progress.

3-You’re an experienced first reader for a publisher. What is it like being the editor’s first line of defense?

Sometimes it’s very, very hard.

I know all too well what it’s like to put your heart, soul, and, on occasion, spleen into a novel which, after countless hours spent polishing it, reworking it and suffering the critiques from readers who may or may not “understand” what you’re trying to do, you send it to a publisher only to have it rejected. It’s the worst feeling in the world and I think about that each and every time I read a submission.

In a perfect world, each manuscript I read would be a masterpiece…but this is not a perfect world and all too often the hopeful author’s hopes and skill are not equally matched. I was once of the opinion that “anyone can write” and as far as it goes, that part is true: anyone can put words down on paper or screen. The question then becomes should they? Sometimes the answer is very obvious and then it’s my job to take the hit, so to speak. But there are also times when gems appear and I get to forward it with a “YES! READ THIS!”

And those make it all worthwhile.

4-Your upcoming novel has a unique premise. Where did it come from?

[This plug was requested, so shush!]

My upcoming novel from Flame Tree Press is about the relationship between a man and his world-famous photographer mother…and their relationship with a small mannequin named SEBASTIAN.

First, a little bit of personal background of yours truly: I don’t like dolls. Never did, although, beings a female child, I was given a number of them from baby dolls to those high fashion icons with oversized…endowments.

And while I don’t suffer from automatonophobia, I’m not overly found of mannequins. Always thought they’re just a little too creepy, especially the molded plastic, faceless kind.

Another personal bit of info is that I love what I call “vulching,” which, in my case, is to swoop in like a vulture on a “Going Out Of Business” sales in search of bargains. Usually I come away with a few things, so when I saw that the JC Pennys in the King of Prussia mall was going out of business, I swooped.

The “bones” had been picked pretty well clean by the time I got there, but I wandered around a bit and found a few things. While standing in line I noticed a herd, flock, assemblage of mannequins along one wall behind an EVERYTHING MUST GO/60-75% OFF sign. All of the mannequins were adult-sized (made of molded while plastic, faceless but with enough gender features to distinguish male from female)…with one minor, and very small exception. It was near the middle of the flock/herd, half hidden behind the legs of those in front of it…about the size of a two-year old, faceless, child.

I didn’t think anything of it until the cashier rang up my purchases and asked if there was anything…at which point I asked if the little mannequin was for sale and how much it cost. It was and cost me a whopping $36.00.
So I bought it and the moment I picked it up, not only did the whole novel popped into my head: beginning, middle, and end, but also his name: Sebastian.

Sebastian stands next to my desk as I write this, dressed for the season. What? You want I should have a naked mannequin in my office? I’ll have you know that Sebastian has a full wardrobe, plus a couple Halloween costumes. My hope is to one day do a SEBASTIAN calendar which means he needs those outfits, right? Right.

5-You’ve notably given public performances as a banshee at a festival in Pennsylvania. How do you get that job?

By accident.

A bunch of us were whooping it up at the World Fantasy Convention in Minneapolis (back in 2002) where I shared the stage with Neil Gaiman and others, to perform a script in hand radio play of Gene Wolfe’s “The Tree Is My Hat.” My character was Mary, who, as it turns out, gets eaten by a shark god.

Our first read-thru went well but when I got to the point where Mary gets eaten, the stage direction said scream. Now, I’d never screamed professionally before this, but I thought ‘how hard can it be?’ As it turned out, not hard at all. So I screamed. I mean I screamed as was befitting a woman being eaten by a shark god. Method acting. I honestly didn’t realize how loud (and long) my scream was until the doors at the opposite end of the massive room burst open and two hotel security guards raced in.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Gene Wolfe seemed pleased with the show and only a few people left the play rubbing their ears. I did offer to teach Neil’s daughter the scream but he politely refused on her behalf.

If you’re ever in Phoenixville, PA, the second weekend in July, head over to The Colonial Theater for BLOBFEST and hear for yourself.

And there you have it, folks – P.D. Cacek, author, reader, and banshee. Many thanks to her for taking the time to answer some unusual questions!

Next week, strap in for Five For Writing with Todd Keisling, author of Devil’s Creek!

Five For Writing – Jay Posey

Jay Posey is a veteran of the video game industry with credits on titles as diverse as Ghost Recon Future Soldier and Star Trek: Bridge Crew. He’s also a multitalented gentleman, and has published seven novels, including the Duskwalker Trilogy and most recently, Every Star A Song. He and I have worked together for many years, and I am pleased to say that he is still talking to me after all this time. And like his character, Jay is hyper competent at anything he sets his mind to. Now hear what he has to say in Five For Writing:

1-You tend to write in series instead of standalone books. What’s the appeal of a series to you?

Hmm, besides the comfort of knowing I’ll get paid for more than one book? I think the main draw of writing a series for me comes from how it gives me time and space to reveal world and character details in a way that feels organic.

I often have a complicated knot of ideas that I’m trying to untangle and explore in my books, and I don’t necessarily know where any of it is going to take me. There’s always a temptation to firehose my readers with information that isn’t necessarily relevant to the immediate story but that my brain really wants to get out on the page so it can stop thinking about it.

My first series (Legends of the Duskwalker) is probably a good example; the main character Three has some unusual traits that make him unique among everyone else he interacts with, but it isn’t really until the third book that it becomes clear why he is the way he is. I kept trying to find a place to explain it all in that first book. There just wasn’t space. It wasn’t relevant to the story that was unfolding, and the amount of context that readers would have needed for it to make sense was just too much to fit in as an information dump. But after a couple of books’ worth of exploring the state of the Duskwalker world, I felt like readers had lived in it long enough that the third book could reveal that background in a natural way that was integral to the story instead of an “As you know, Bob, Three is special because …” kind of thing.

Knowing that I don’t have to rush into anything is helpful, though it has occasionally bitten me too. I left some loose ends in my Outriders series that I still haven’t had the chance to tie up (yet). (Which is probably why about 98% of email I get from readers is of the “When is the third Outriders book coming out?” variety.)

2-You dramatically expanded the scope of your writing for your last two novels. What led to that?

Mostly a direct challenge from my agent, the esteemed Sam Morgan. After the Outriders books, when we were discussing what to tackle next, he said he’d really like to see what I could do on a more epic scale. My first two series were focused on small groups of people, so when Sam said “how about more epic”, I went from “small group with personal stakes” to “galaxy spanning empire with the fate of the human race in the balance”. It was quite a challenge for me and really stretched me creatively, but I’m really glad that Sam pushed me to give it a shot.

3-Your debut novel, THREE, fused elements of westerns, horror, cyberpunk and post-apocalyptic fiction. How did you arrive at that combination?

I had been working on a different novel off and on for a few years and was having trouble making any headway. At some point, I finally realized it was because I wasn’t a good enough writer at that point to accomplish what I wanted to with it, so I decided I’d just pick another idea and make it a goal to finish it, without really worrying about whether or not anyone else would ever want to read it.

So I think the weird combination of elements grew out of the fact that I was writing THREE for myself first and foremost, and I just decided to build a world where I could include all the things that I thought were cool. I remember thinking about George Lucas and Star Wars: A New Hope, and how watching that movie, you can see his love of Westerns, samurai movies, hot rods, and WW2 dogfights all happily co-existing together. I think I just figured if I wanted to write a book about a cyber ninja gunslinger trying to help a dying woman and her child cross a wasteland filled with bad people and scary critters who only come out at night, there wasn’t anything stopping me.

4-The defining trait of many of your characters is utter competence. What’s the appeal of writing
about characters like that?

I’m secretly envious of competent people. Life must be so much easier for folks who have some idea of what’s going on!

There are a couple of things in particular that appeal to me about writing hypercompetent characters. First, I think it’s interesting to explore the humanity that exists even in people that seem so different from the rest of us. I’m pretty sure my background in writing for Tom Clancy video games has had a hand in that. I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to sit down and talk with a lot of combat veterans from the special operations community, and it’s really impacted how I view members of our armed forces who serve in those elite groups. I used to imagine that they were all just a different kind of human from the rest of us, more like superheroes I guess. The fact is that they’re just people too. So that’s always been interesting to me to explore.

Secondly, I think it also has something to do with the kinds of scenarios I can put those characters into, and still have it seem plausible that they can find their way out. I feel like I can barely navigate a grocery store successfully these days, so it’s fun for me to be able to drop these characters into extremely challenging circumstances and know that they can handle it.

5-What’s the book you’ve always wanted to write that you haven’t written yet?

Probably that very first novel that I worked on for so long that has still never seen the light of day. It’s a fantasy setting, but not unlike the Duskwalker series in combining many different elements that I just find interesting personally. With seven novels under my belt now, I feel like it might be about time to circle back around to it and see if I’m ready to tackle it or not.

Five For Writing – Gary Astleford

Gary Astleford has an entry on Wookieepedia, which automatically makes him cooler than I am. He’s also an experienced video game scribe, with experience on titles like Warhammer: Age of Reckoning and Wildstar, as well as the wildly successful Rainbow Six: Siege. Currently a Senior Narrative Designer at my home base of Red Storm Entertainment, he is currently working his mighty wordcraft on The Division: Heartland. Without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with the thoughtful and talented Gary Astleford.

1-What about game writing appeals to you?

As a long-time tabletop game master, I’ve always loved world building and telling interactive stories.

2-What do you think are the main differences between TTRPG and video game writing?

Tabletop RPGs have a dynamic edge that computer and video games lack. There’s always a chance for TTRPG players to do the unexpected, so a certain amount of flexibility is required to ensure that things run smoothly. Though printed adventures are often written with a central storyline in mind, it’s not uncommon to provide game masters with alternatives and suggestions for when things go off the rails.

Conversely, the stories told in video games are limited by available tools and game systems. They tend to be linear, scripted, and on rails to a large degree. While improvements have been made developing procedural content, as well as branching dialogue and storylines, we’ve still got some distance to go before we can emulate the dynamism of an imaginative human storyteller.

3-What were the challenges in writing for Rainbow Six: Siege, a game that doesn’t necessarily have a traditional narrative structure?

In Siege, the narrative elements are by necessity presented outside of the core game. Siege’s stories incorporate the game’s extensive and evolving cast of characters amidst a narrative backdrop delivered in an episodic fashion. Certain in-game features, such as special events, use a more traditional approach to delivering in-game narrative. However, more dramatic stories and interactions between characters are conveyed via other types of media—CGI and anime videos, comics, online articles, etc.
These various narrative assets are quite focused and specific. One challenge in creating them is to stay on-message, as there is rarely room to write in the proverbial margins. Another concern involves the scope and cost of the assets (which can be tremendous) and ensuring they are as polished as they can be right out of the gate. In this process, Narrative is only one of a number of key stakeholders involved in the creative process. Consensus and agreement across disciplines during production is vital.

4-What says good game writing to you?

I value internal consistency in game writing, as well as due consideration of the player’s agency and their role in and effect on the story. Players should absolutely feel as if their actions in the game make a difference. Providing tangible results for those actions is an important part of my own creative philosophy. While I don’t feel it’s necessary for all player actions or accomplishments to be broadcast or rewarded, there’s definitely a sweet spot I aspire to.
Beyond that, content should be internally consistent—any surprises or plot twists must make sense within the framework provided by the game’s narrative.

5-What are the next steps that need to be taken in improving game writing?

As creators I believe it’s our responsibility to usher in new perspectives rather than cling to those we’re
familiar with and accustomed to. While strides have been made in increasing diversity in games, we still
have a long way to go. Representation, both within our industry as well as within the content we create,
matters a great deal. There are voices we haven’t heard yet and they have their own stories to tell. The
inclusion of these voices can only improve the narrative tapestry of the games we make.

 

Many thanks to Gary for taking the time to sit down and answer the questions! Next week, tune in for five questions with science fiction novelist and all-around excellent guy Jay Posey!

Five For Writing – Justin Achilli

Justin Achilli and I go way back. Like, to the mid 90s at White Wolf way back. It was a pleasure to work with him then, and it’s been a pleasure to work with him in his time at Red Storm. He’s one of the sharpest game designers I know, as well as an excellent writer and editor, and a thoughtful, eloquent advocate for games. Here he is now, the man who more than anyone embodies Vampire: The Masquerade – Justin Achilli.

 

1-You’ve been involved with Vampire: The Masquerade for over two decades. How has it changed in that time, and how has your approach to it changed?

For the longest time, Vampire (and all of the World of Darkness games) were made by a company that was a physical book publisher first and foremost. It needed to print and sell books to survive, so a lot of what went into the games served that end: Print stuff with a perceived value and sell that. We were writing and developing sequential periodicals as much as we were writing and developing games. Things like “metaplot” and “canon” emerged less from an intentional continuity and brand-building, and more from survival instinct.

Now, though, the company that owns the World of Darkness (Paradox Interactive), isn’t a physical book publisher at all. So my work on Vampire and other titles is refocused on building a sandbox in which people can tell their own stories rather than printing some-thousand words of plot advancements.

2-You’ve worked in both tabletop and video games. What did you carry over from one to the other?

Overall the thing that I find most important is to respect the player’s time. Audiences have a huge amount of options in terms of entertainment, so I think it’s important to realize what your game offers, whether it’s a TTRPG or a video game or whatever, and deliver on that promise.

I had been working on MMOs a while back and it used to bother me how a lot of MMO marketing was “you can be anything you can imagine in this enormous living world!” but their gameplay was built around three or four very distinct classes or roles and combat quests. That always seemed really disingenuous to me. Better to have a very limited scope and help the player tell the best story they can within that scope than to try to tick every box and deliver adequately on only a few of them. Pendragon is an amazing TTRPG, and characters are comparatively very limited in what they are: Arthurian-era, mostly knights. And look at, say, Stardew Valley — it doesn’t have one tenth of the feature list of, say, Star Citizen, but it’s made millions of people very happy by letting them tell a very distinct kind of story, and it doesn’t pretend to do anything else.

I think that’s the most important part. Let the player tell the story and live the fantasy you’ve promised to them. Games development is project management, so your resources should be scaled and devoted to fulfilling your promise.

Not a sexy answer, I suppose, but a good one, I think.

3-What do you feel is unique about game narrative, and have we been reaching its full potential?

The big difference between games and “one-way” media is the interactivity. In a game, the narrative is helping the player tell the story, so if the story relegates the player to making insignificant choices, it’s telling them that they don’t matter, that what the story “is really about” can happen without them. That does a disservice to the player, who’s playing to see the outcomes of their actions, to make choices and learn what those choices effected.

I don’t think we’re at the point of realizing the full potential there, and I think we’re still a distance away. Look at how long writing as a craft has existed, or creating visual art, or making music. Compared to those media, video games are in their infancy, and they’re a unique blend of all of those things and then some. Some of what’s limiting us is technical or technological — we can’t yet have an AI “game master” that’s as versatile as a human one, and we can’t ship an infinitude of digital assets to visualize or realize what a human game master can describe. But some of our limitation, too, is commercial, in that it’s really expensive to make games and the people funding them want to recoup their costs, so the expenses of risk-taking are much more controlled than in, say, an individual’s effort to tell the story that they’re burning to tell.

4-How do you think game design should be used to tell stories?

I think of game design as the “toolbox” the player has. A game effectively proposes a problem or a series of problems, and the design defines the parameters by which the player can attempt to solve those problems. So there are really two stories to every game (and sometimes they overlap very closely): the story of the player playing the game, and the story events that contextualize the game itself. The player’s story, and the world story that includes the character the player is portraying.

I think this is the part where I’m supposed to bring up the “does Tetris have a story?” exercise 😉

But seriously, I like the definition of a game as a series of interesting choices. “What happens when I do this?” is the source of myriad stories. They don’t all have to be epics or infinite. Some stories happen in a moment’s time.

5-Do you prefer open-ended or linear game narratives, and why?

As a personal preference, I enjoy open-ended narratives, because they make me feel more like I’m in charge of my own destiny. Especially when I’m able to create my own character, I feel like setting my own goals and realizing them is part of that open-endedness.

Which isn’t to diminish linear game narratives, of course, and I’ve worked on many of these. In complement to the above, when I’m playing a specific, named character, I tend to appreciate linear narrative smore, because I buy into the story that this is that character’s story and I’m helping realize it, as the player.

In the end, it has a lot to do with the promise that’s being made to me, especially in game worlds that are part of franchises. In a Star Trek game, I want to boldly go! But I also accept that I’m probably going to end up in conflict with the Klingons at some point. “Linear” doesn’t have to mean the player is resistant to being directed toward an outcome. If it’s part of what you buy into when you undertake the narrative, it’s reasonable to have some expectations.

 

Huge thanks to Justin for taking the time to sit down and answer these. You can find his wit and wisdom on Twitter, and in the continuing output of World of Darkness books.

Tune in next week for another interview!