Genre Fiction Rules: Or Why’s Stephen Crane Lurking in Stephen King’s Shadow? Guest Post Hosted by Laurence O’Bryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irish author, Twitter phenom, and friend to indie writers Laurence O’Bryan has graciously hosted a post by Shawn StJean on the topic of literary vs. commercial or genre fiction, as part of his great “Emerging Writers” series.

LINK to the article: http://bit.ly/Zq580I

While you’re there, check out other thoughtful contributions by writers in need of discovery, and of course, a great blog and Laurence’s own books, like The Istanbul Puzzle.

Thanks, Laurence!

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Book Review of Clotho’s Loom and Shawn StJean Interviewed by Fellow Novelist Alana Woods

Check out this book review, accompanied by an interview, by Suspense/Thriller Writer Alana Woods. She’s responsible for Automaton (2001) and Imbroglio (2012), as well as a short-story collection (Tapestries) and a book on writing fiction well–so don’t expect her to take it easy on me!  This is probably the most informative–and interactive– format we’ve seen yet.  CL is a nearly epic book, requiring a heavy investment of time and attention.  If this exchange doesn’t clarify what you’re getting into, nothing will! 

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Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: Sacrificial Lambs and Old Goats

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“Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?”  These words, asked of the American people less than a week ago by President Barack Obama, echo a plea repeated by civilized peoples, and dramatized in literature, at least as far back as the ancient Greek city-states.

You must understand: Literature and film only present extreme manifestations of what regular human beings endure every day.  They amplify everyday experience.  In short, they only exaggerate, but they do not change the basic truths.

Oedipus, in fear of his own inadequacy, called for a scapegoat because a plague had come to Thebes: “Whoever he may be, cast him out!” And his mandate did not stop short of murder.  In the first post from this series, Zombie Apocalypse Now, I alluded briefly to this horrific phenomenon of human sacrifice, which people today foolishly dismiss as a relic of the historical past, or unique to primitive cultures.  No–we do it here, and now.  We did it on December 14, 2012, in Newtown CT.  We?  Yes, every  one of us has a share of that guilt, as long as we remain silent, and await the next event.

WE resist change.  WE fear our own vulnerability.  WE are too selfish to trade personal safety for the good of our society.  You can insist on conjuring a demon of chaos, and calling him Adam Lanza, or Seung-Hui Cho, or Eric Harris, or Dylan Kleybold.  But you still have to answer either one of two questions: Either, What contribution are you making–no matter how small an act–to take his weapons away, OR: What will you call him next year?

Because it was never more truly said than in this case: If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.

In that earlier post, I made this claim:  “The plot archetype beneath the collective and individual struggle for survival emerges as what Campbell called the Scapegoat Myth, wherein other human beings are sacrificed impulsively for one’s own personal safety/comfort (as in the all-too-human pushing of someone aside to escape the pursuing [Zombie] horde), or ritualistically, for the supposed good of the community at large, as simply told in the classic Shirley Jackson tale “The Lottery,” or most recently convoluted by Joss Whedon in his Cabin in the Woods (2011). In such tales, Man is revealed as the most monstrous Thing of them all, because alone among created beings does he turn on his own kind – zombies, aliens, pirahna, at least, do not eat each other. But a man will slay his brother, or steal his life savings, or repossess his house, or covet his wife. All in slavish worship of his insatiable hunger.”

This archetype is so compelling within the collective unconscious–sustained by guilt–that it resurfaces in a slightly different form of storytelling, every few years.  It has to.  The plague (perceived first as an external threat) takes many forms, such as a monster like the Kraken, or Witches in Salem, or Communists, or the shark from Jaws, or terrorists, or serial killer (as in Stephen King’s televised novel Storm of the Century: “Give me what I want and I’ll go away” demands the murderer, in bloody wall-script.  By the time such a demand–“Price,” to use Obama’s apt word–is actually named, fearful citizens will go to any length to satisfy it.  Not coincidentally, King’s villain wanted children too.  The innocent, the virgin, the young, are so much easier to digest than the corrupt adults.

Like Martin Luther King before him, it has now become clear to our nation’s leader that the plague on U.S. society is violence (guns are simply one of its limbs.)  And if we cannot, all in one day, lop off the head of the beast, then a limb ought to make a good start.

Witness the fearful public reaction, even before U.S. leaders make any concrete decree.  Hiding behind the ambiguity of the Constitution, and mindless sloganeering: “Pry it from my cold, dead hands,” as if they really had that kind of courage.  A true person of courage would not be ready to so easily commit the lives of others he’ll never know, and on a regular basis, to staunch the flow of piss down his own leg, because he can’t imagine life without the power to kill within reach.

I’m the last person to advocate for relinquishing control over my personal affairs to government lawmakers.  If you love your guns–and more likely you love them as anyone loves any material object, simply because its yours and thus has value–and if you believe in the right to keep and bear arms promised in the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights–good.  Insist lawmakers make sensible distinctions, and not some fascist, blanket mandate. Trade in your pistols and automatic rifles for a deer rifle, or shotgun, or even a compound bow.  You can still hunt game and bar the door against intruders with those, and they are not likely to ever be hidden under a coat or smuggled into a school.

Are we really going to roll over, as a nation of 300 million people, and say that this plague, this monster, is too tough for all of us combined?  If another nation of millions attacked us, we would not hesitate to rise up in wrath, before we sent a single, innocent child in our stead.  But that is a solution of violence.  Do we dare seek a solution of peace?  Do we dare model for our children the way of courage, and not fear?  Do we have the guts?  Are we willing to pay THAT price?

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The Life You Save May Be Your Own: Imbroglio, by Alana Woods. Book Review by Shawn StJean

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Book Review by Shawn StJean

If the title of my review seems far less original than that of the novel it explores, that’s because there are some clichés that well-earn their familiarity.  For example, if overheard conversations, mistaken and assumed identity, and misdirected letters (nowadays more prevalent as lost or stolen e-mail correspondence and hacked computer files) are not fresh enough for your taste in fiction, then the entire suspense/thriller genre probably isn’t either.  Alana Woods deploys them all–there’s even a diary–but recombination is everything.

 

Far more compelling than these stock conventions are the book’s two main characters, David Cameron (you may need a pen handy to keep track of his several aliases,) but more especially Noel Valentine, a heroine worthy of a series–though Woods doesn’t appear to be setting us up for one.  Among all of fiction’s many self-made detectives, few are given a motive for their investigations–which lead them into all manner of professional and personal hazard–more credible than simple money.  The universal catalyst, serviceable for everyone from Sam Spade to Jim Rockford.  Oh, other reasons have been invented among the better writers: egomania for Sherlock Holmes, or the occasional impressment into service (Rick Deckard.)  Woods’ David, like Hamlet, was bequeathed the task by his dead father.  Good thing for audiences, too–for it doesn’t always wash, that the motives of those seeking truth are the identical ones held by those seeking to cover it up.

 

For Noel Valentine, the impetus necessary for the pursuit of semi-comatose David’s nearly successful assassins, leading to discovery of several convolutions of corporate wrongdoing, surfaces from the depths of her very plausible, damaged psychology.  “Why not go to the police?,” she’s asked at several points, and the answer simply lies outside the realm of logic and reason. 

 

Sure, she wants to ensure the man she dragged from a fiery car wreck heals, she wants a prestigious account at her PR firm, she wants the perks of her boss’ favor.  It all makes sense, yet none of it is really accurate.  In fact, one of the latent enjoyments of the novel is witnessing how many different misogynistic interpretations of her behavior can be put upon Noel by the old boys’ network, projecting their own malfeasance onto a vulnerable target.  “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s a dirty, double-crossing dame,” says one of the villains of the Hollywood noir classic The Killers, and apparently little has changed in three-quarters of a century.  Woods’ heroine must also endure multiple layers of claustrophobic pressure: from the confines of her tiny flat invaded by her healing counterpart, to sexual pressure from her boss and a nefarious client, and finally to the crushing depths of the sea itself.

 

No, for Noel, investigation is first about living dangerously–perhaps subconsciously attempting to carry out a long-time suicide wish of her own–and later, about simply living.  In fact, when the bad guys provide her with the perfect opportunity to slip quietly into that good night, guiltlessly in the world’s eyes and her own, it’s only then can she recover the id-energy to carry on and survive that her efforts on David’s behalf have been attempting to revivify all along.  That scene of crucible is worth the price of admission alone, straying so far as it does from the strictures of the genre, and invoking naturalistic archetypes from more high-brow literary fiction like Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and even some Hemingway.

 

What difficulties there are can be faced down within the first half of the novel, which gathers much steam afterward–though thankfully eschewing many of the predictable action-elements we may expect (no car chases, and just a little obligatory gunplay.)  Sex, naturally, plays its role, though not overdone.  Woods provides several of her majors with fully stocked families, and various minor characters fill out the cast, necessitating full attention to relationships.  As for the geography, the locales of Cairns and Sydney, while well-described, may feel less familiar to non-Australian readers than we’d like.  However, it’s exactly this transportation of time, place, and generally stretching beyond the constricting neighborhood of the known-comfortable, among landscapes ranging to the deep psychic, that many will appreciate most.

 

 

 
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Casting Call–Miscellaneous Characters–Angelic Mother, Demonic Father

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For William Wyrd’s parents (both of whom are only seen in flashback,) we add an even more international flavor to the cast of a hypothetical film production of Clotho’s Loom.  Irish actress Susan Lynch (known in the U.S. as Maggie from Waking Ned Devine,) and currently working in the TV series Monroe, could well handle the role of Will’s unnamed mother, who, like the heroine of the novel and her daughter-in-law, Nexus, has to raise her son alone following the disappearance of his father (in this case, into North Vietnam.)  Earlier, she even defends the boy against his father at several points, doing her best in spite of a clear lack of power–so she functions as a foil for Will’s future wife.

For Will’s father, known only as Sergeant Wyrd to us, no particular actor is needed because we would never seem him very clearly onscreen.  A black operator, possibly, or perhaps even CIA, his shadow is imposing and threatens to suffocate both his wife and son, and his voice gritty and vaguely Germanic (Will’s grandparents were German and Irish immigrants to America).  I tried to write into the novel the psychological trauma of the strong father, from many angles: even when moral, as with Nexus’ father Lambert, the voice of Vader can be paralyzing.

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From out of the unconscious to Oedipus Rex to Star Wars to the latest video game, HE just keeps turning up. . .

Indie Authors: Beware Amazon’s Auto-Renew (and Miscellaneous Pitfalls of KDP Select)

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Activision’s Pitfall Harry finds a new way to get his heart broken

As a follow up to my post, Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market,  in which I joined the chorus of e-voices lamenting Amazon’s latest wave of review removals (I’ll return to this further down,) I’d like to draw attention, especially for the benefit of new and aspiring authors, to a few of the other potential landmines in your path, if you choose to go with a program specifically designed to benefit fledgling writers: KDP Select.

First, I want to be clear that you’re making a good choice. It’s a great way to get launched. I’m not embarking on some anti-Amazon crusade—my own books are published there, and likely to remain, no matter what other steps I take to sell them. But the system is not perfect—and its flaws are, without question in my mind and whether designed consciously so or not, biased toward the building of the Amazon monopoly.

So if they’re going to police us and our reviews, we’d better police them. While we still can.

There’s a “convenience” feature (their word, not mine) built into KDP Select that renews you for a second (and third, etc.) three-month period, which requires you to UNCHECK the default setting of “go ahead and do it.” This obligates you to publish your book EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon for that period. At first, I thought I was unique in my blunder at overlooking this. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to locate within your author’s dashboard—one might say, it hides in plain sight. You will not, among your dozens of other Amazon e-mails, receive a reminder. I’ve since discovered several other authors who’ve essentially committed the first SIX, not THREE, months of their book’s existence to the the giant bookseller by this same lapse in vigilance.

At the end of the first 90-day period, you may feel comfortable enough as an author/bookseller/promoter/agent to want to branch out with outfits like Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Lulu, Google Play, and a host of other players in the market. You may also have given away hundreds or thousands of copies through AZ’s program, and feel that’s plenty to get your toe in the door of the electronic marketplace, especially if you are channeling those readers in venues like GoodReads, LibraryThing, blogs, and forums like the UK’s Kindle Users Forum (you should be).

Now, should you stumble into an Auto-Renewal, it may occur you to shrug and just do as you like, anyway. If you feel like it’s too much trouble for Amazon to take legal action against you because you’re so little, just don’t forget they have other options. First, it’s their store: they can ban you and your works. Second, due to the royalty payout structure, Amazon will have custody of up to three month’s of your royalty money at any given time. If you breach, and they counter-breach your agreement (somehow your money doesn’t arrive,) are you willing to pursue legal action against them, given they’re so big? Oh, and if I’ve reviewed the guidelines correctly, the 72-hour grace period for withdrawing only applies to the first signup period. I found it all-too-easy, assuming all along I would not renew, to miscalculate the exact day I thought to withdraw, and became obligated for another (big holiday) term.

Perhaps needless to say, this really does look like another of the many, many moves it takes to corner a market, build a monopoly. And you may not really be selling that many books, but as long as you’re also not selling any through any other channels, well, Amazon doesn’t need to concern themselves about you, do they? You’re not contributing to their competitors becoming a threat.

A quick update on the review removals: I’ve confirmed through several sources that it isn’t just certain reviews that AZ’s software bans: it’s certain reviewers from reviewing certain books (products). So that means, if you as an author are in contact with a reviewer (very common, and often very legitimate) and can persuade them to reword or even completely re-write a review, even in strict adherence to the guidelines, it will not stick. I wish to emphasize the importance of this. In my view, it reveals that the official line about reviews violating guidelines is baloney. And in the final analysis, if you can’t get enough positive reviews (the fundamental, traditional means of selling books,) then aren’t you even more dependent upon the Amazon distribution machines, like KDP Select and its giveaways, or whatever they come up with next?

By contrast, if you get stuck with a one-star review by someone who obviously did not read your book, did not buy your book, and for perverse reasons of their own would clearly like to sabotage your book, AZ had provided a “report abuse” button for you to push. I have not discovered many authors getting justice this way, however.

As several sensible folks have already remarked, blenders and generators and computer motherboards are one thing—you NEED reviews to help make an informed decision—but as far as content like books and music goes, perhaps it’s time we began behaving, as consumers, in a non-traditional way: READ the SAMPLE. At least several pages—and decide for yourself. As a literate person, you don’t need Amazon’s robots, or friends and family of the Author, or some ex-girlfriend with a vendetta, telling you who, and what, and how, to READ.

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For the lead female protagonist of Clotho’s Loom, Nexus Wyrd, my preference would be for veteran actor Elisabeth Shue, most familiar in her youth from the Back to the Future franchise and Adventures in Babysitting, and nowadays CSI on television.

Nexus is about 40 years old, yet carries and births her first child in the course of the novel.  She also experiences many flashbacks, ranging from her college days to the recent past.  Abandoned by her husband, she is left very much on her own, and experiences major changes that we usually associate with people in their twenties.

For such a dynamic character, I needed someone who could play both naive and vulnerable, and tough enough later on to rebuild her shattered life, brick by brick, and defend her child from every peril.  A woman who could convincingly wield a 12 pound sledgehammer (no mean feat).  Also, attractive enough to draw the attentions of the main villain, Dr. M–.   The growing strength of my heroine needs to show in the athleticism of her body, but more, in the experience on her brow.

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Casting Call: Main Characters–Heroine