Five For Writing – Josh Schlossberg

Joining me today is writer and editor Josh Schlossberg. A member and co-founder of the Denver Horror Collective, Josh is also the editor of The Jewish Book of Horror, which is out in time for Hanukkah this year. He was kind enough to take a moment to answer some questions, so without further ado, I give you Five For Writing with Josh Schlossberg:

1-What inspired you to create The Jewish Book of Horror?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to tell you that I heard a booming voice coming from some flaming piece of shrubbery or a cloud on top of a mountain. I was actually talking with my mom on the phone about how I wanted to push the envelope on horror fiction (without getting canceled), and so I said to her in jest, “I should just do a Jewish book of horror.” And then the menorah in my mind lit right up.

2-Putting the book together, did anything surprise you?

I was most surprised by the many flavors of Jewish horror we received in terms of author submissions. Many of the staples for sure, such as golems, dybbuks, and demons. But thanks to their creativity, THE JEWISH BOOK OF HORROR has redrawn the boundaries of this barely known subgenre.  

3-How does your Judaism intersect with your writing?

I’d say mostly through a sensitivity and awareness of the shadow throughout all dimensions of life. Part of that undoubtedly came from reading about the Holocaust from a young age. Yet the rest may have been genetically passed down through the generations, as in the past, an unwary Jew was often a dead Jew.   

4-Your website focuses on biological horror. How would you define that, and what’s the appeal of it to you?

The definition of biology is the study of “living creatures and vital processes,” so it’s basically that plus horror. Ever since I was a little boy looking for frogs on streambanks and inside sewer grates, I’ve felt very connected to the natural world. And the more you learn about how nature works—from ecosystems to microbes, from wildlife to the human body—the more fascinating and disturbing life becomes. 

5-You talk about “the gatekeeper’s burden.” Editing two anthologies, what have you learned about the gatekeeper role, and how has it influenced you as a writer?

That a gatekeeper has an obligation to treat authors with respect, whether it’s passing on a submission or buying a story, because without them, there is no book. 

In terms of gatekeeping influencing my writing, I now have more of an understanding of how an editor might pass on one of my own stories simply because it doesn’t fit into their idea for an anthology or meet their specific tastes, not because its lacking in story or craft. And that the behavior of editors that tends to peeve authors the most—ignoring emails, form rejections, no feedback—is probably more about poor time management than spite.  

 A big thank you to Josh for taking the time to answer the questions. You can find The Jewish Book of Horror, which contains my story “On Seas of Blood and Salt” for sale just in time for Hanukkah.

Next up is the master of Pugmire, Eddy Webb. Tune in next week for some very good dogs!

Five For Writing – Heidi McDonald

It is a privilege to give you today’s Five For Writing with Heidi McDonald. One of the leading authorities on romance in games, Heidi is a Narrative Designer for Fire Hose Games. An author and speaker, she has received plenty of critical acclaim. That being said, I give you Five For Writing with Heidi McDonald:

1-You’ve staked out romance in games as territory you’re very comfortable in. How did that come to be?

In 2003, I played Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR), which made me want to be a game writer, because it was the first game that ever made me FEEL. Then in 2009, Dragon Age: Origins hit, and sent the feels to a completely new level because of how deep the romance content was (which I found completely by accident). I was so determined to have my relationship with Alistair Theirin turn out the way I needed it to, that I completely re-played 80 hours of the game just so I could end up with him. I’d never been that emotionally invested in a game, ever. I went to school in 2010 to pursue my degrees, and while I was there, Dragon Age 2 came out. In that game, the companions were all “playersexual” (would respond to your romance efforts regardless of the gender of the player).
A professor assigned us to write a paper about “any aspect of any medium we enjoy,” so that meant I was going to write about video games. Right at that same time, there was a big kerfuffle on the BioWare Social Network where a guy who identified as “Straight White Male Gamer” took issue with the fact that there was non-heterosexual content in his game, saying that since he represents the majority demographic, he should be the one catered to. David Gaider (a narrative hero of mine and Narrative Director on Dragon Age at the time) actually came onto the forum and directly answered the guy (which was really SUPER rare) by saying look…that content is optional, you can not play it, or you can play a different game, because our games are for everyone. That’s what made me initially curious: is that how the majority of the players feel? How, why, and who are they romancing, and how does that compare to their romance practices in real life? I had my topic for my paper. I soon realized through an unfruitful search for sources that somehow, nobody had asked those questions yet. So, for my paper, I decided to conduct that research myself, and report the findings.
The paper became a lecture, the lecture became a GDC talk, the GDC talk got picked up in different places around the world; soon I was doing supplemental research that took my original questions further, I co-founded the Romance and Sexuality in Games SIG with the IGDA, and then in 2017 the book came out (Digital Love: Romance and Sexuality in Games). It kind of became my thing because I was the first to ask some of those questions. It’s been really rewarding to see other research sprouting from mine and a real industry genre and conversation spring up around it in the past 10 years. Oddly enough, I’d done plenty of work around player engagement and empathy, and plenty of talking and writing about player behavior relating to romance in single-player RPG’s…but I’d done very little actual game writing of romance content. When I went freelance in 2019, my research experience and my samples began to get me actual work doing that, and for the past three years, I’ve actually done a ton of the actual work. So, having “what the players need for it to be fulfilling” from my research equipped me to be better at writing in that genre, though I’ve also developed science fiction and historical fiction as additional specialties. Right now, as Narrative Designer for Fire Hose Games, I’m working on something that’s science fiction. I do expect to turn out more romance in the future, though!
2-As an experienced game developer, do you think there’s a responsibility to younger developers coming up?
Most definitely. When I was new to the industry, I was able to succeed because I had influential people like yourself holding the door open for me and reminding me that I belong. I try to pay that forward for others (particularly people in marginalized communities) in a number of ways, whether that’s teaching young writers at a university or helping with workshop and curriculum planning for friends who teach others, sharing my knowledge through lectures and chapters in how-to books, recommending a colleague, training more junior writers as a lead or senior in the workplace, helping people with portfolios and interview skills, talking shop with people who ask, whether that’s press people, friends who have cool websites, or talking to some high school student who has encountered my work and contacts me out of nowhere. Some folks might be opposed to giving away knowledge so freely because they feel a sense of competition, because in fairness, it has become way more competitive in recent years. Our discipline is pretty over-saturated right now, professionally speaking…hundreds of applications for every one job…but I am still a big believer in the idea that there’s enough opportunity out there for everyone. Also, game writing is a relatively small community, and you’ll quickly get a reputation if you are cool, or if you are a jerk. I’d rather be cool. Besides, you never know which one of these youngsters will write the next breakout game that sells millions of copies and they get millions of VC dollars, they found a studio, and you have to apply to them for your next job. 😉
3-What says good game writing to you?
If a story can emotionally engage me and offer choices that matter to the outcome, that’s a good story. I also really love it when a writer will take a trope and flip it on its head somehow, like, add an interesting twist nobody has seen before, or handle it in an unexpected way. One of the best screenwriting books I read in college (where I majored in Film and Digital Media, alongside a dual major of Communications) was all about how you have to understand genres and conventions in order to break them (I can’t remember the name of it), and for me, effective twisting and breaking of known tropes when done well is just (*chef’s kiss*) awesome and gratifying. I have tried to do that in my own writing, too. The best way I can explain it is writing for Star Trek Timelines...Star Trekis a 50+-year-old genre with established lore and fans who are very particular and passionate about that lore. What I was tasked with as a writer on that IP was both to give the players enough of what they DO expect, balanced with something believable that fits the lore but is NOT expected. That’s how I feel about writing, in general, as it relates to playing with tropes. You want the tropes to be recognizable enough to be accessible to people, but at the same time you want to bring something unexpected to it.
4-What’s the one game writing trope you hope never to see again?
This is endemic both to romance game writing and romance writing at large, but it irks me when a happy ever, the entire end goal, is heterosexual marriage. Not only do I think that doesn’t have to be true, but I think it propagates unhealthy expectations about marriage being the be-all and end-all, and honestly, it’s hard. Relationships are a lot of work. I’ve been married and divorced three times (yes, the romance writer who keeps getting divorced, it’s ironic, I know…it just means I’m really good at falling in love). Two of them were abusive, and one was a case where over 15 years we didn’t put enough work into US and just, over the course of jobs and children and life, grew apart. The relationship I’m in now is deeper, stronger, and better than any of those marriages were, and we have no plans to marry. We have all the ingredients that matter, we’re doing that important daily work, and don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. Marriage is important to some people, but that shouldn’t mean that it’s required for everyone, in every case. There are happy ways to be which are different from that. I tend to prefer payoffs that are in a very strong single moment of connection which shows that the couple has arrived at some very deep understanding together, rather than a “welp, better book the church, the end.”

Also, if “choice for choice’s sake with no real change or impact” could die in a fire, all of game writing would be better off.

5=Why the obsession with pirates? Is it a Pittsburgh thing?
Actually, no. I’m from Pittsburgh, but not a baseball fan. The only sport I follow is ice hockey (Let’s Go Pens!). The pirate thing started for me in 2003 with the original movie Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The ride at Disney World had always been my favorite, and when the movie came out, it was everything I thought a movie should be in a way that I hadn’t experienced since my favorite movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. When the second Piratesmovie came along, I and the kids dressed as pirates to see it the first night. That movie had a lot more actual lore in it, and when I went to research how much of it was fictional and how much was not, I ended up learning a whole lot about actual Caribbean piracy and became an accidental expert because I was really interested in the stories. Right around this same time, I started going to GDC as a conference associate (CA), and the CA’s often wear quirky hats, so I wore a pirate hat. Someone dared me to wear the hat during my conference talk — anyone else, I’d have told them to get bent, but it was Jason Vandenberghe, and when the Dark Lorde dares you to do something, YOU DO IT. Then I ended up in all kinds of pictures with it on, and it became a Thing, like an expectation, the thing people came to expect from me. I would be completely in character at work during Talk Like  A Pirate Day, collecting pirate books and paraphernalia, even went so far as to join pirate guilds in Los Angeles, and I walked the red carpet at the Hollywood world premiere of Pirates 5, as the relative of a friend was the person who planned that premiere. (I’m not sure I can top that experience.) I went on to write a spicy pirate romance story for SANA: Interactive Stories, which became one of their most popular series (The Primrose), and I’m in the process of novelizing it now. The pirate love interest in those stories is based on my love interest in real life, with his permission and support.
I will say, though, that for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the pandemic, I’ve been looking to change the whole pirate image a bit. Showboating that way was fun for a while, but I look back on it and find that it was pretty self-indulgent, and that’s ultimately different from how I would prefer to come across from now on. My new aspiration is to focus more on deeper things that matter to the present: helping and showing care toward others, concentrating more seriously on making work that I’m proud of, and being less of an attention seeker. I recently gave away most of my pirate cosplay stuff. I may want to dress like a pirate some other time, but I only need one outfit for that and not a whole closet and hat rack. I will always be interested in the whole pirate thing but I have other, more important focuses now.
Thank you to Heidi for her time answering these questions. You can find her here on Twitter.
Next week in the hot seat is Josh Schlossberg, the editor of The Jewish Book of Horror. See you then!

Five For Writing – Jeff Strand

Time for another Five For Writing. This time I interview the talented and prolific Jeff Strand. A Stoker nominee and the many-times MC of the Stoker Awards, Jeff has written over fifty novels, including Wolf Hunt, Dweller, and Clowns Vs. Spiders. (I won’t tell you who to root for in that one.) Several of his books are currently in development as motion pictures. It is with great pleasure that I give you this interview with one of the funniest people in horror, Jeff Strand.

1-Pressure is one of your signature novels. With Deathless, you’ve gone back to that world to write a sequel. What brought you back?
The time just felt right. I’d actually started writing a sequel shortly after the Leisure Books paperback edition came out in 2009 (three years after the Earthling Publications hardcover), and I even read the prologue at the World Horror Convention,but then scrapped that version and put the idea aside for about a decade. Every once in a while I’d think, “Maybe I should consider writing that Pressure sequel” and then I’d work on something else instead.

I’d started an original novel, which I abandoned after a couple of chapters (something I do fairly frequently) but there was the germ of an idea in there that I suddenly realized would be a perfect way to continue the Pressure story. I thought, well, I’ll keep this in mind and work on it in my spare time, then I got too excited and e-mailed Paul Miller at Earthling and said, “Hey, if I wrote a follow-up to Pressure, would you be interested?” He was, very much so, and then I was committed!

2-Do you prefer the horror or the humor aspect of your writing?
I don’t really have a preference. What tends to happen is that if I’m writing a really joke-heavy comedy, like my young adult novels, I’ll start to wish I was working on something more serious, where I didn’t have to sustain that joke-joke-joke pace. And when I’m working on something more serious, I’ll think, “Wouldn’t it be fun to be writing something really goofy?” From a marketing perspective, my books that are more straightforward horror/thriller have sold better than the more comedic stuff, so if I was forced to choose between horror or humor and wanted to keep being a full-time writer instead of crawling back to a day job, I’d choose horror. If everything sold equally well, I’d probably go with humor. Fortunately, I get to do both.

3-Clowns or spiders? Which are more frightening, and why?
I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I don’t find clowns the least bit scary. Don’t get me wrong—I love scary clowns! They’re one of my favorite monsters! But they don’t scare me at all. I just think they’re way cool. Spiders, on the other hand, are terrifying beasts. I don’t run screaming out of the room if I see a spider, but I flinch and let out a tiny yelp if one crawls on my arm. When I walk through a spiderweb, there's always that moment of horror of gaaaahhhh what if it’s scurrying through my hair??? If I woke up in the morning and a tarantula was on my chest, I’d let out a silent scream and then my heart would give out and that would be the end of me. I don’t know why. They’re just scary, okay? I don’t see YOU letting tarantulas crawl all over your bare skin.

4-You wrote a memoir of your writing career thus far called The Writing Life: Reflections, Recollections, And a Lot of Cursing. What inspired you to do that at this stage in your career?
Well, it’s been a long time since I was a newbie, and I’ve got a lot to say about the subject. I’d done a presentation at a few writers’ groups called “Stick With It: Sustaining Your Writing Passion in a Brutal Business” and I thought it might provide the framework for an interesting book.

In January 2020, I was on a socially distanced vacation in a cabin in Florida, and I thought, “I’m on vacation, I can write something fun without worrying about the commercial prospects!” and I wrote up a few of the anecdotes I wanted to include. May 2020 was going to be the 20 th anniversary of my first published novel, so I thought it would be nice to have the book out that month to celebrate this momentous occasion. I didn’t even come close to making that goal. I decided, instead, to time the book to my 50 th birthday, which was December 2020. Surely at fifty years of age I’d accumulated enough wisdom to justify writing the book. It’s emphatically not a book about the craft of writing—it’s called The Writing LIFE for a reason. I also wanted it to be funny and entertaining enough that people with no interest in becoming authors could still enjoy it.

5-You are one of the most prolific authors in the horror genre. How do you choose what to write next and keep it fresh?
I try to mix things up, so if I write a supernatural horror novel like Allison, I’ll follow it with a contemporary thriller like The Odds, and then a much more comedic novel like Cemetery Closing (Everything Must Go), and then a coming-of-age 1979-set thriller like Autumn Bleeds Into Winter. I definitely don’t want to write the same book over and over. Usually the process starts with me saying, “What horror trope haven’t I tackled yet?”  Then I try to come up with a twist. So with my upcoming book Creep Out, it was, okay, I haven’t done a scary ventriloquist dummy novel, and I’ve never seen one of those that was written in the “survival horror” genre. Then I try to write something that is different from my other books but still very clearly a Jeff Strand novel. Every once in a while I’ll veer away from the genre entirely with something like Kumquat or Bang Up, but that's always a one-off before I return to horror.

Many thanks to Jeff for taking the time to answer these questions! And tune in next week when I talk to noted video game scribe Heidi McDonald about romance in games and more!

Five For Writing – James A. Moore

It is my pleasure to reinaugurate the Five For Writing interview series.

First up is James A. Moore. Some of you may know him from his work on the original World of Darkness setting. Others may be a fan of his horror, where his Jonathan Crowley novels have attracted both fans and critical acclaim. Then there’s his grimdark fantasy series, The Blasted Lands, which introduced him to a whole new audience. Most recently he edited Halloween Nights: Tales of Autumn Fright, a horror anthology with a murderer’s row of contributors. James was kind enough to sit down for his five questions. Without further ado, here’s James A. Moore’s Five For Writing:

1-You write a ton of horror, but some of your most successful work has been fantasy. Why the switch in genres?

Genres are a marketing thing. I don’t much care about marketing, I care about telling a story that I would enjoy reading, and sometimes that takes me away from Horror and over to science fiction or fantasy. Sometimes it means mixing my genres like oil paints. Wherever the story wants to go, I’m perfectly willing to follow. 

2-What does fantasy offer you as a writer that horror doesn’t?

There are certain rules to horror. Mostly it takes place in the modern world. Fantasy can take place in entirely different worlds. The best example I can give for that is the TIDES OF WAR series, where I built an entire pantheon of gods, and an entire continent of countries, and then merrily set about laying waste to everything. Really, it is horror, but with a different setting.

3-You’ve just edited an anthology for Halloween. How does editing compare to writing for you?

You have to look at editing as a collaborative effort. There’s a balance you need to achieve between the stories, the theme, and the authors. This was a Halloween anthology, so the theme was easy, but as with ay collection you want to avoid repetition, and you want as many original voices as possible. Also, editor or not, you don’t have as much control of the work as an editor. So instead of just relying on my words, I’m relying on fifteen different authors, all of whom are doing their own thing. After I get the stories I can make suggestions but really it isn’t about what tales I want to tell, it’s about how I can put the moving parts together. It’s a very different mindset and challenge and I love it.

4-You’ve done a fair bit of collaborative writing. What appeals about that to you, and how does your process work?

The process is different with each writer, but at the end of the day, I liken it to getting together with a friend and playing in a sandbox with each other’s toys. We are sharing the wonder, the challenge and the fun of each other’s imagination. Usually, you have to establish some rules up front, and you have to genuinely enjoy the other person’s work. It can also be a challenge collaborating with someone who works at a different pace than you do. Working with Charles Rutledge is normally a hoot, because he writes just as fast as I do.

5-Your signature character is Jonathan Crowley. What inspired his creation, and what do you think is his appeal?

I’ve scratched my head about that a few times. First, Crowley’s personality is a lot like mine, but without a censor button. He says and does things that I would never do in real life. But I’ve thought about a number of them often, and I realized that actually acting the way he does would likely get me in hot water. It’s fun to play around with that sort of personality, but it’s not always wise in the real world. I tend to play it safer than Crowley because I am not immortal, I do not heal bad wounds as quickly, and frankly, my mother raised me not to be that rude. As to his appeal, I suspect it’s exactly the same thing. He does and says what a lot of people would LIKE to say but never do. I had a few women tell me over the years that they find him incredibly sexy and I shook my head and wondered why. He’s a complete bastard most of the time. I expect the world works differently when you’ve been around long enough to no longer be threatened by most people and their attitudes. Crowley is an immortal. There’s very little he hasn’t seen or done, and most of the people he meets just annoy hjm. 


Five For Writing

A long time ago, back when giant ground sloths roamed the earth and you had to code HTML by hand to update your web page. I used to run a series of interviews with writers on this site. The series was called Five For Writing, because I cannot resist a pun and a sports joke at the same, and featured short, five question interviews with writers of fiction, video games, and tabletop RPGs. It ran for a couple of years and I had a lot of fun doing it, but the upkeep became onerous and I let it lapse.

But what goes around comes around, and it’s time for Five for Writing to return. I’ll be starting the series back up in the very near future. Interviews are already lined up with writers like Jeff Strand, Anna MegillLucien Soulban, Maurice Broaddus, Justin Achilli and more. So once again you’ll get answers to all sorts of questions from all sorts of writers. I’m really looking forward to it. I hope you are, too.