Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Ellison's Silent Scream, Amongst Other Ellisonisms.

Discovering Harlan Ellison was a boon to my writing, a revelation, the person and his work often overlapping--that attitude: words with teeth and ready to bite! How could my teenage self not like his tales?

I remember wandering into a book store, looking for something different, somebody new. I needed to shake things up. Lovecraft and Bradbury may have opened my eyes, but Ellison threw shards of glass in them, his impish demeanor and scalpel precise prose slicing deep into my psyche. The book that caught my eye was the 1974 Signet version of The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World. I devoured those stories over the next few days and immediately went back for more: I was addicted. And, yes, I’m as much a fan of the introductions as many of the stories; Ellison’s got an involving knack for conversation with kick, always amusing, and I’m all too easily drawn into his words in all forms.

There are some writers we read who don’t leave a trace; other writers, well, even if I’m the only one who can notice, I know their fingerprints are all over my words, though now they are my words and less derivative of the influences (we’ll get into ’voice’ at another time). Ellison is one who’s often there. I always feel like my first novel, The Corner of His Mind, feels like a cross between Ellison and a few other writers, but I’m pretty sure Ellison’s got the wheel (or he‘s fighting over it with Lucius Shepard, as the story veers into Magic Realism). I was going through two boxes of handwritten and typed out stories in the back room recently, and ran across a long story I’d attempted from the 80s called, “The Searchers,” which is deeply indebted to “A Boy and His Dog.”

And then there’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Have you ever gotten a chill when a story works out perfectly and you know it, know the author nailed it? This is one of the rare stories that did that to me the first time…and the 10th time, the 20th… The impact is undeniable, the endlessly malicious predicament of Ted, Gorrister, Benny Nimdok, and Ellen at the hands of the supercomputer, AM--originally: "Allied Mastercomputer," later called "Adaptive Manipulator"; eventually, AM stands for what the supercomputer had become: "Aggressive Menace”--wearing me, the humble reader, out! The finale is one of the most chilling moments in fiction ever and even thinking of it now, my spine’s got scorpions racing up and causing my shoulders to scrunch together. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend the experience--and yes, you will experience it.

Which sounds like a good plan: I think I’ll find that worn out, waterlogged copy of The Beast…and take a break with a true master.

Yes, this is the wonderful artwork that caught my eye and led me to Harlan's speculative fiction world.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Amusing Musings of a Wayward Muse.

The interesting thing about taking on a blog is that I feel a responsibility to write one fairly consistently, perhaps 4-6 a week; I used to write for a lot of music magazines and deadlines were a part of the deal, which I don’t mind, so imposing personal deadlines with this and some stories, setting goals: all good by me. One of the other deals with the blog is to find something amusing to write about. But what of those days when nothing’s coming to the noggin?

Just like writing fiction, one must find consistency. Or steal a great quote about consistency, habit. This one by Octavia Butler is from her essay, “Furor Scribendi,” and sums it up quite nicely; a friend pointed this one out to me after my post about perseverance, and I like it.

"First, forget inspiration," she writes. "Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not ... Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don't have it, it doesn't matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent ... Finally, don't worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need ... Persist."

Or you could always take Joe Lansdale’s advice, which is equally as, um, wise (and paraphrased, jogging my memory): “Sit ass in chair and write.” No ifs, ands, or buts…just your butt in the chair and get to it!

Of course, inspiration is usually not an issue, the world is a wicked playground. (That and there’s often a story or five in progress at all times.) I’m only too happy to frolic with madness, mishear things (that’s one of Harlan Ellison’s story triggers), and, in general, live with my eyes and mind wide open. But consistency helps improve the process, gets the brain primed and ready without delay--some days we simply have to prod the Muse and hope She jumps in when She's ready--and opens doors to even more than I might have imagined when starting a story.

BTW, “Furor Scribendi” is Latin for “rage for writing,” a wonderful phrase (another door opening? Yes!) which inspires me to get back to the words at hand because, as I like to say: Words Matter!

Abigail Larson--Random Inspiration


Monday, March 28, 2011

A Jolt of Dread Makes John a Happy Boy.

I love the short story; the novelette as well. I’m always surprised that short stories get the short shrift when it comes to fiction. Especially in our over-stimulated world, where distractions rule--chewy sound bytes, sordid media blips, streaming blurbs teeming with banality, cyber-nincompoopery nonpareil!--it would seem a perfect form of instant fiction gratification without strings, something to fill the space between here and there, reading it on your electronic device of choice or as a--what are they called?--hardcover or paperback book, ahem, they seem made for current times. I started out writing short stories, still write them often; though I enjoy novel writing, the immediacy and that instant gratification kick (yeah, it works both ways) when completing a story in a week or so is always a joy.

I remember being 7-years old when my mother, who enjoyed the esoteric--she had books on UFOs, the paranormal, all that is odd, that I dug into with curious glee--handed me an anthology of horror stories. I vaguely remember the cover had some beast crawling out of a dark cellar (if that’s the right anthology--there were more, oh yes), yet I cannot remember the title, alas. But buried within those pages, there was a story by H.P. Lovecraft that left me in a state of wonder because of how the words created an ambience of eeriness that enveloped me. I clearly remember feeling as though that fantastic world was real because in my head he painted such a vivid picture that my already darkly inclined mindset embraced it. I think the story was one of the Silver Key stories, but it could have been any one of his weird tales; “The Colour Out Of Space“ comes to mind as a strong possibility, too, it being one of the greatest weird tales ever, fully immersing me in an ambience of dread so fine I can sense it squirming in the cranial prison even now.  For the sake of argument, yes, I know "Colour..." is a novelette, but my point is it was easily digested in a lazy afternoon, not a week or three as with a novel.  Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison (the master of the speculative short tale) followed in line; Joe Lansdale, David Schow, Clive Barker, Clark Ashton Smith, Ballard, Borges, Ligotti, Kiernan, Pulver, Barron... The list goes on and on, old and new masters who 
affected me and still do, giving me the jolt to write, to create a world and worlds as distinct and strange as theirs.

In 7,500 words or less. ;-)

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Perseverance: The Art of Growing a Thick Skin.

I’d started writing seriously around 1990, because I realized I was writing weird stories, angry philosophical blurbs, bad lyrics & worse poetry all the time, so might as well hone the skills and see what comes of them. I remember my first rejection slip, from Kristine Kathryn Rusch, at that time the editor of Pulphouse magazine. She said nice things that, upon retrospect, with my technical inefficiencies, I’m quite amazed she saw something there worth complimenting. It probably gave me hope that I was choosing the right path. But years later, when looking at the hideously incompetent short story, “A Torrent of Ages”--man, what kind of title was that?--I was happy she did see the good there, the essence, something of worth. I took that story, the seed of what was right, and expanded on it by about 8,000 words, and even had the good sense to give it a much more appropriate title--“The Oblivion Express.” Looking back on that rejection, I know her keen eye was a good boost for my confidence, kept me writing (not that I would have stopped). Having never attempted to get my words published, if she would have been brutal--which, again, for the woeful technical aspects, she had a clear right to say, “John, perhaps you should put the pen down and run, don’t walk, from any aspirations of being a writer, take up Professional Tiddlywinks or Ferret Grooming”--I would still have stumbled through and continued writing, but with a dark cloud of shadowy confidence haunting me, for all I know.

I had my first story acceptance in I993. It was a horror story called, “Slow Flies,” accepted by Aberations magazine, published in issue #7, November of that year. But I may not have made it that far if she would have been hardcore with me with that first funky story. One never knows…

You’re probably thinking, John, so, you had your first story published way back in the early 90s? Actually, I had a few more published back then, but got blindsided by Music Journalism in the mid 90s. Nobody said this path wasn’t full of many diversions from the plan. Music Journalism took over for many years--I still occasionally write some reviews or ad copy; I've written over 1,100 reviews, articles, interviews, ad copy, etc. I got back into fiction around 2003, yet I believe that all of the music journalism really refined much of what I bring to my fiction now. All a part of the process of growth as a writer, but that’s a post for another entry. For this one, rejections are a part of the deal. I’ve had some that are classic (I had an acceptance pulled within the writing of the letter because the editor's girlfriend was so grossed out by the story he loved--and he wrote this all down in the letter!), but we need to take them all in stride and send the stories out again and again. Some of the best writers and most popular short stories and novels have been rejected numerous times. So, one of the keys to this writing gig is simple: hone the perseverance and thick skin as well as your skills.

Not sure if this is a Slow Fly, but...well...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Misery Loves Company: How Despair Helped Write My First Novel.

Writing a novel too daunting for you? Perhaps what you need is a little misery.

In 2005 I went through a relationship break-up that left me reeling. The break-up was the culmination of a lot of stuff besides the break-up itself, so life and misery slammed into me with the force of a brake-less semi on the steep downslope. I went through a few months in which I didn’t write. Then, in an airport, I scribbled some notes; then more. Over a two month period I wrote 10-12 short stories; I was allowing myself to wallow in the pain via words. Writing is often a way I use to work through the chaos of life. After collecting these stories and sending off a copy to the ex-girlfriend, with no expectations besides thinking she would appreciate something about what I was going through--she did not appreciate them at all; my naiveté was in full bloom, oh yes--I sat in front of a computer on September 6, 2005, and said out loud, “I am going to write a novel.” I had no real idea what it would be, but had written notes on a conversation I’d had with a woman named, Sonja, on a plane from Portland, OR, to Oakland, CA. the previous week.

I had no real idea what it would be, but I was ready.

I fully immersed myself in words, the story, adding and subtracting threads, letting the characters run wild, furrowing my brow at their actions, almost deleting a chapter that, in the final version, is essential to the whole outcome. I let the words flow, taking me away from the misery and mental chaos, and after 21 days, I had 58,000 words; 19 days later, a 62,000 word version was completed. It’s gotten tweaked and such since then, of course. But the core of The Corner of his Mind bulldozed into formation over those 40 days and 40 nights; the word flood had ceased, Noah, leaving me exhausted but enlightened. It had shown me something I’d never been able to accomplish before: writing a novel. I’ve written another novel (oddly enough, also about 62,000 words--what’s with that?), and am now working on novel number three.

When times are rough, sometimes words (and love, of course; the love of those who matter in our lives) are what we can use as a life preserver. I know I have, still do, and expect to always.

Because Words Matter!

No, this is not my ex girlfriend, it's Kathy Bates from Misery... ;-)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Balance: The Dark and Strange entity that is "The Sunglasses Girl."

Let’s get hardcore.

Just to let you know that I write a wide variety of stuff, after the subtle surrealism of the micro-fiction piece a couple blogs back, here’s a snippet from my story, “The Sunglasses Girl,” which was published in the paperback anthology, Peep Show, Volume 1, from 2004--a worthy venture if you can find it, I was in good company, including John Everson and Shaun Jeffrey. The two main characters are Trane, a guy just out of a relationship, messed up and cheated and can’t find his way back to the woman he loved, and the woman of the title. He’s wallowing in sex and self-pity disguised as freedom. She‘s a prostitute and wears sunglasses at all times because, well…you’ll see. If memory serves me correctly, the sequence below, the big paragraph of descriptive darkness, was pointed out by the editor, Paul Fry, as particularly potent.

So, after hours of sex and still wanting more, Trane wants to see what’s behind those sunglasses. Shhh, let’s join the scene in progress:

…She smiled, all teeth, vicious, gleaming with disgust, and took off her sunglasses.

“Remember, you made this choice,” she seethed.

The moment was brief. Description was useless, but Trane’s mind flashed with unexpected images: vast gulfs of infinite, starless space; yawning abysses where the lost tumbled for eternity; black scars that oozed blindness. He felt an oppression begin to suffocate him. She had no eyes, per se, just the empty sockets where they should be, empty sockets that defined the word “empty” in new, disturbing ways: fathomless wells in which the echoed response of the dropped stone would never speak. They epitomized nothingness, a vast, turbulent nothingness that indicated that there was no soul within her, no self, nothing of substance--nothing!—but something of unspecified definition that roiled like a cavern of agitated bats. The nothingness started to leak like viscous black rivers from a whirlpool of resentment and hatred and loathing and spite and so much more negativity (negativity, that was what he witnessed; the whirlpool writhed with an omniscient negativity) that Trane’s head pulsated with the pummeling weight of her wrath. He gasped, his erection went south, and she put the sunglasses back on. It was only one moment…

“Happy?” she hissed, this time with a vehemence dripping with revulsion, like viscera from a sated hyena’s laughing snout.

Fun stuff, eh? Every story picks its own path. I’m only there to scribble madly, trying to capture these often dark words for others to read and enjoy. From the subtleties of magic realism, to hardcore horror, to any fantastic path between, hey, I am but there gleeful messenger.

Hope this works: the link will lead you to a page featuring the art used for the cover of Peep Show, Volume 1. It seems impossible to get the actual cover online, I'd just assume right click and save the art, post the painting here, but the page doesn't allow right clicking. we go.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Ceremony: Words inspired by Art.

Though I will be talking about writing, the process, the stories and novels, every facet that comes to view as I sit here typing, let’s simply jump in with a micro-fiction piece today, something originated on FB as I often post art and occasionally add what I call a blurb story. Sure, it’s flash fiction, but it’s also incomplete, awaiting a little bit more as space is limited there. But I like doing them, love how art inspires words, ideas, scenarios--stories. This was one of my faves, something subtle yet surreal and now completed. Though my short fiction usually veers into horrific territories, there’s also been a strong surreal element crackling through the synapses for awhile. This piece veers in that direction. It’s called, “The Ceremony.”

"What are you doing?" asked the news reporter.
"Collecting sticks for the ceremony," Walter said.
"What ceremony?"
"Well, the death of an angel requires something more than casual acknowledgement." He smiled, teeth yellow and chipped, the brim of his ragged hat shadowing his eyes.
"So, you're telling me this was an angel?" The reporter shook his head, even though he was standing in a wheat field in which a large wing jutted toward the midday sun, and an indecipherable mass was spattered all about. He thought the man daft; all these country bumpkins were daft.
"It could’ve been--"
"Could have been? There's no such thing as angels.” The reporter harrumphed. “This was simply some mutant bird. Some freak of nature. That’s all."
Walter's smile grew wide as the shadows thickened, not only shielding his eyes, but annihilating them. The reporter fidgeted as a stone of unease settled heavily in his stomach.
"You believe what you want,” Walter said, the sticks turning into snakes in his hands, “and I’ll get back to my ceremony…”

There ya go. Go out and find a painting and write your own short piece. They’re a lot of fun and a good trigger to get the brain muscle ready for bigger tales. Which is where I’m headed now…

The Visitation by Rob Harrison

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Another voice crowding the cybervoid...

So, taking a dive into the blogosphere, an introduction is in order.  My name is John Claude Smith and I write speculative fiction in all its tattered adornments, primarily weird, dark stuff that straddles the line between horror, modern fantasy, and magic realism.  Lots of psychological elements and out and out bizarreness abounds, though it also has a universal appeal; well, the novels do, no matter how "out there" they get.  The short stories, they may sit in your belly (and mind) like a swallowed goldfish that's decided to embrace its inner whale; or should that be piranha?  The object of the blog is to talk about fiction, mine and other writers whose work I appreciate, and whatever else comes up as I sit here typing.  It's going to be an adventure. Strap in, hold on and, please, keep your hands in the vehicle at all times. 

And remember: Words Matter!

PS. Gimme a week or so to work out some of the kinks visually with the blog, but enjoy the words as they flow out across the page.