Monthly Archives June 2017

SETTING: THE KEY TO SPECULATIVE FICTION by Bruce Boston

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Why do many readers—your potential readers—pass over realistic contemporary fiction and choose to read speculative fiction instead? They can certainly find compelling plots and characters in mainstream fiction. There are more books from which to choose, from classics to potboilers, and no lack of adventure, romance, suspense, and conflict. And most literary critics would contend that in the best mainstream fiction one encounters superior writing and greater emotional and ideational depth than in the best speculative fiction.

Yet speculative fiction offers one distinctive and significant element that is lacking in mainstream fiction: the creation of an imaginary setting. The reason many readers choose speculative fiction over mainstream is because they want to leave the cares and concerns of everyday reality behind and be transported to a completely different world.

Further, an imaginary setting is not only essential to the definition of most speculative fiction, it generally plays a far more important role in it and a qualitatively different one than it does in mainstream fiction. In speculative fiction, setting is less a backdrop for action and characterization and more a key element that is intimately related to plot, character, and the story as a whole. In fact, one might argue that story elements such as plot and character are far less relevant to the success of a speculative fiction story than its setting.

Look at classic SF novels such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or Logan’s Run by William Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. In both these books, the conflicts the characters face and the direction the plot takes hinge completely on the environments the authors have created. Huxley’s very human “savage” becomes confused and tortured by his exposure to a hi-tech dystopia based on scientific humanism. Logan must embark upon a journey of discovery beyond his cloistered environment so that he will not be terminated at the age of twenty-one (thirty in the movie). The ideas that resonate through these novels would have been impossible to communicate without the settings their authors created. Both of these novels and many others in the speculative genre, with regard to their thematic content, can be viewed in terms of a dialectic. The setting presents the thesis; certain characters offer an antithesis; the resolution of the plot leads to a new thesis which often manifests itself as a changed environment.

Unlike most mainstream fiction, where the environment is not only a real setting but a relatively static one, the environments of speculative fiction are both imaginary and capable of transformation.

Even in speculative fiction stories where the overall setting remains unchanged, such as novels involving a journey or quest, it is often setting— not plot—that moves the narrative forward. The resolution of plot in such novels, in the broadest sense, is a foregone conclusion. Good will triumph over evil; the journey will be successful; the quest will be completed. What keeps the reader involved and anticipating more are the particulars of the fascinating environments through which the protagonists pass and the adventures they experience as a result of exploring those environments.

Framing a Speculative Setting

One way to approach setting in speculative fiction as a writer is to view its creation in the same way you would the creation of a character. If you’ve published a novel, or even a long story, and you encounter someone who has read it and has questions about it, odds are, if you are inclined, you’ll be able to say much more about the major characters in your story than actually appears on the page. This is because you’ve lived with them in the creation of the work. You’ve chosen certain actions for them and discarded others. You’ve explored their inner thoughts and conflicts, their values, their likes and dislikes.

Thus just as you might give a character long blond hair, a manic desire for revenge, a tendency to be deluded about his/her own importance, and a fear of snakes, you might give your setting automated walkways, a manic desire for consumption, an autocratic social structure, and an indifference to its ecological impact on the world around it. And just as a character might evolve and change as your story progresses, so can your environment.

An obvious example of the identity between character and environment in speculative fiction is the SF story we’ve probably all read at one time or another where a planet is revealed as a sentient consciousness. If you view your environment as a character, as having a kind of sentience that you create, if you bring it to life for yourself in the course of creating it, there’s a good chance it will come to life for your reader and greatly enhance whatever story you are telling.

Mainstream versus Speculative Settings

When it comes to creating a setting, the mainstream writer has certain advantages over the writer of speculative fiction. Suppose my mainstream novel deals with a character who becomes successful in the fashion industry. The action begins in small-town Kansas, moves to Manhattan, and then to Paris. Contemporary readers are already familiar with each of these settings, and with the fashion industry, either from personal experience or the media (movies, television, books, the Internet). The mainstream writer can bring them alive with a few deft strokes that play on this familiarity. If I have a scene where two of my characters meet at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, I don’t need to go into any great detail describing the Eiffel Tower and its surroundings. Most readers will know them already. Just mentioning the Eiffel Tower, and noting that the streets of Paris were jammed with honking traffic that rainy afternoon, will evoke a very specific setting.

This advantage extends beyond specific environments such as Manhattan or Paris to all the general settings of contemporary life. Flying in an airplane, riding in a taxi, sitting in a classroom, buying a hot dog from a sidewalk vendor. Each of these phrases calls up associations for us that we share in common to a large extent.

However, suppose I’m writing a speculative fiction novel set in the 25th century on the planet Tarjel. The action takes place in a city built by aliens. I have two characters meet at the foot of the Centauri Monument. Unless I’ve already described this world, this city and its structures, and the nature of this particular 25th century, I might as well have my characters meet in a vacuum. The planet Tarjel and the Centauri Monument evoke nothing in themselves, except perhaps a vague sense of the alien.

Thus in certain kinds of speculative fiction, you need to build your world from the ground up. If the setting of your story is different enough from what we experience in everyday life, this may need to include the political, cultural, and religious values of the world you are creating.

However, you are not the first speculative fiction writer. You are working in a tradition. If your readers are also familiar with this tradition, which most of them will be, you share some of the advantages of a mainstream author. None of us has ever walked on the surface of another planet, but through television, movies, and books, we have done so many times. If your story is set on the surface of the moon or Mars, even those who do not normally read speculative fiction will already have a readymade image of the setting in their minds. Most SF and fantasy readers will already have experienced sword and sorcery kingdoms, hi-tech mega-cities that cover an entire world, FTL travel to other star systems, totalitarian corporate states, worlds devastated by nuclear holocaust, etc.

Yet the more original your setting—and it should be original, at least in some of its specifics—the more it differs from contemporary realities both in our everyday lives and what we experience through the media, the more you are going to have to include telling details to bring it to life.

One advantage you have over the mainstream writer is that as long as your setting stays true to itself, as long as it complements your story and interacts in the right way with both plot and characters, you can create any kind of world you want. It is sometimes said that writers play God with their characters. As a speculative writer, you can also play God with your setting. In fact, this is exactly what you should do.

The Five Senses and More: Borrowing from the Everyday

We live in a culture that is primarily visual in its perception of reality. We use sight more than any of the other senses to judge and cope with the world around us. As a result, our other senses have to some extent become atrophied, both actually and in the attention we give to them.

One of the most common mistakes I see beginning writers make when creating an imaginary setting is relying exclusively on visual descriptions. If you want to bring a setting alive for the reader, you can use all of the sense impressions of your characters to describe it.

A few weeks ago I attended an arts-crafts fair held in a local park. It was a sunny day and quite warm. Many of the display booths had colorful pennants hanging from them. There were vendors selling food and a variety of other things. I could smell food cooking. I could hear music and the sound of children playing. The ground beneath my feet was uneven in places. In one area that was crowded, several people jostled against me. I bought a pita stuffed with ground lamb and vegetables and it tasted like cardboard.

We’ve all had a similar experience in the real world, and what makes it real is that all of our senses are receiving impressions. The same goes for a setting in fiction. You can see that it would not be hard to transpose an experience such as this to the marketplace of an alien planet circling Betelgeuse. Yet if you limit yourself to the visual, if all you do is describe what the marketplace looks like, it remains one-dimensional, as if your reader were viewing it on a flat television screen rather than walking through it.

There is no need to include sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste in every scene. And visual descriptions will probably remain the most significant and effective in creating your physical setting. Yet if you let your readers hear, touch, smell, and taste the world you are creating, it will become all the more convincing for them.

But that still may not be enough. Our perception of an environment in the real world consists of more than sense impressions. How we feel about these impressions, and what we think of the environment as a whole, are perhaps of even greater import. Is your character pleased by the festive atmosphere of the marketplace or disturbed by the strange mix of odors in the air? Is this a fair that was held for a particular reason, and if so, what? Was it to celebrate a banner harvest? To acclaim the return of conquering heroes from a war in which an entire populace had been ruthlessly slaughtered?

All of the above are available to you in creating your setting. There is no necessity to use them all, particularly in a single scene. But being aware of them as you write, and learning to use them effectively, can help you to create rich and believable environments that readers are going to want to inhabit.

Here are two techniques I have used that you may find of value.

When I’m working on a story with a speculative setting, a world very different from our own that I need to create, I think about the story and the world in which it is taking place as I drift off to sleep each night. With regard to setting, I don’t just consider it in terms of the scenes of the story, but I let my mind take an imaginative journey through other parts of the world in which the story is taking place. In this way you may generate additional information for the story, but more importantly, the world you are creating will begin to take on a broader and deeper reality for you. Again, the more real your setting becomes for you, the more likely you are to convince your readers of its existence and bring it alive for them.

The second technique can be used in concert with the first or on its own. Returning to the idea that setting in speculative fiction is akin to character, give your setting a temporary sentience and pretend that sentience is your own, just as you would with a character. Take on the values of the society you are portraying, the physical characteristics of the world you are portraying. How does this world feel about your characters, about itself? This can lead to some interesting insights, not only in terms of the setting but with regard to your narrative and the story as a whole.

The Setting beyond the Setting

Beyond the physical and cultural setting in which a story takes place, there is another kind of setting that one experiences as a reader. It exists in all fiction, though it comes to the forefront and is most obvious in the work of authors who exhibit distinctive voices and views of reality. When you read Kurt Vonnegut’s work you not only travel with his characters to the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden or share an alien zoo cage with them on the planet Tralfamadore, you inhabit the world and the values created by Vonnegut’s satiric, often dark, and slightly quirky view of reality. When you read Hemingway, you not only travel to a bullfight in Spain or with a safari in Africa, you inhabit Hemingway’s view of the world with his specific code of values and behavior. Surely, if Vonnegut wrote Hemingway’s stories or Hemingway wrote Vonnegut’s, even if the physical and social settings remained the same, the experience of those settings for the reader would change drastically.

This setting beyond the setting, which might be called a meta-setting, applies not only to moral and philosophical perspectives and individual perceptions of reality, but also to simple questions of individual tastes. If you love the rain and dense forests, your description of rain in a dense forest will no doubt be colored in some positive way by this preference. Likewise, if you hate the rain and find dense forests frightening, the reverse will most likely apply.

How much your own particular voice, values, and tastes will become a meta-setting that colors the physical and social settings of your stories is something you will discover in the course of writing. It is also something to consider with regard to the question of whether you are writing a story mainly as a means of self-expression and artistic creation or writing the story to sell to a particular market.

* * *

In writing speculative fiction, you can create compelling characters and a superlative storyline, but unless you take your readers to a different world and make them believe in its existence, to experience it as if it were real, you are much less likely to hold their interest. So learn to inhabit the world you are creating. Walk down its streets. Breathe its air. Taste its food. Experience its pleasures and its terrors. Enjoy the imaginative creation of setting the same way you do with characters and plot, and there is a good chance that your readers will, too.

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 30, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End interview…with Paul F. Olson

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Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

Paul F. Olson: I spent the first eleven years of my life on what had once been an operating farm in Wisconsin, and then my family moved to Mackinac Island, Michigan—a small island located between the state’s two peninsulas, in the straits that link Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The island is a major tourism and summer travel destination. Motor vehicles are banned there, so transportation is by foot, bicycle, or horse and carriage. In the winter months, the visitors and summer folk leave, the snow comes down, the lake freezes over, and the island becomes a virtual ghost town. The entire school, kindergarten through to twelfth grade, had fewer than one hundred kids. There were three in my high school graduating class. I tell that to people now, and they say, “You mean three hundred.” No, I mean three.

 

So yeah, I had a lot of formative experiences growing up, both in Wisconsin and on the island. My family owned a bookstore on the island, and working there introduced me to a world of writers and reading that I never would have experienced otherwise. Later on, I created and ran a branch of the store selling used and rare books, which was another invaluable experience. Going to such a small school was important, too. By default, I became responsible for a lot of my own education, which turned me into a lifelong learner. And the fairly limited range of extracurricular activities also helped nudge me in certain directions—for example, editing the school newspaper for three years, which taught me a lot.

Later on, in my mid-twenties, I moved to the Chicago metropolitan area for ten years, before eventually returning to northern Michigan and settling in a more typical “small town” of about five thousand people. So, I’ve lived in a wide variety of places. But growing up in fairly atypical, isolated circumstances left its mark in many ways. If nothing else, it made me more independent, self-reliant, and introspective, which it turns out are all helpful qualities for a writer to have.

Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

PFO: Like many writers, I’ve had to go back and forth several times in my life between full-time writing and balancing my writing with a “day job.” I’ve been writing stories since I was seven or eight years old, and taking it seriously since seventh or eighth grade. I first began to realise—or at least hope—that it could be my career when I was fifteen or sixteen and working in my family’s bookstore.

I was fortunate to be able to make my first break to full-time writing when I was in my late twenties. I was managing bookstores for a large chain (B. Dalton Bookseller—anyone remember them?) in the Chicago area, and left to launch my magazine Horrorstruck: The World of Dark Fantasy, a non-fiction trade publication for fans and pros. The magazine did well. At the same time, I was selling some stories. The late Dave Silva and I put together a proposal for a ghost story anthology called Post Mortem, which got us an agent, the wonderful Lori Perkins, who got us a fantastic publishing deal with St. Martin’s. Lori also was able to sell my novel The Night Prophets to New American Library. So with all of that going on, I was able to write and publish full-time for a couple of years, which of course was an awesome, amazing experience.

Then life happened. The horror boom of the 1980s went bust, and almost simultaneously my wife and I became the parents of twin girls. I hung on for a while, wrote and did the Mr. Mom thing while my wife went back to work, but eventually a day job once again became a necessity. I did a couple of years as a marketing director for a non-profit arts organisation, but we wanted to get out of Chicago and get back up north, which led us to the small town of Manistique, Michigan, and took me in an entirely different career direction.

I did two stints as the editor of the weekly newspaper in Manistique, separated by three years as news director of the local AM radio station—seventeen years in all, the majority of it spent working twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days, six or seven days a week. I remember waking up one day around 2010 or 2011 and realising that other than a few long weekends here and there, I hadn’t had a vacation since 2001. And worse: it had been longer than that since I’d written anything that wasn’t a news story. I stuck it out for a couple more years, but then one day hit the wall hard. I was fifty-two, the kids were grown and out of college, I was getting a divorce after thirty-one years of marriage, and I was about as physically and mentally burned out as it’s possible to be.

 

I made big changes after that—moved a few hours away and slowly, sometimes painfully, taught myself to write fiction again. I felt like a guy who was once in great shape but spent twenty years sitting in an easy chair. He joins a gym to get fit again, and yikes, he finds that every single muscle in his body has atrophied. He needs to build up those muscles again. He needs to relearn how to use them. It’s long and it’s not easy. That was me five years ago. But the story has a happy ending. Today I’m writing, teaching English and creative writing to at-risk high school kids in the Upward Bound programme every summer, and doing a lot of community volunteer work.

You know, I don’t think I came anywhere close to answering your question. But that’s the story, for better or worse.

Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelmed, which motivated you to even greater heights?

PFO: The day I sold my first short story was probably my most rewarding day as a writer. I’d been trying to sell things for several years, without success. I didn’t mind the rejections, which I knew were par for the course. And every once in a while, the form letter would include a little personal note of encouragement scribbled on the bottom, which felt like a tremendous victory in those days. But like all beginners, I did spend a lot of time wondering if I was chasing a pipe dream. Is it ever going to happen? Am I good enough to make it happen? One day in 1983, I sent a story to Dave Silva at The Horror Show, which was really just getting started back then. Dave rejected it with a lovely handwritten note, asking me to send him something else, which of course I did the very next day. Lo and behold, he bought it and sent me a cheque for $10, a quarter of a cent per word. I photocopied the cheque before I cashed it, and I still have that photocopy. It’s one of my most cherished possessions. But I don’t have to look at it to remember the thrill I felt, not just that day but for several weeks afterwards. It felt, literally, like I was walking on air. I’ve had much larger sales and many bigger paydays since then, but none was ever quite as satisfying. It was the answer to the question I’d been asking. Yes, I could make it happen, if I was willing to work hard enough.

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family?

PFO: You’d probably have to ask them that question! But seriously, it is a difficult question to answer, in part because I’ve never been anything but a writer. It’s not as if I spent twenty years selling insurance or building houses and then suddenly threw it all aside to write books. The people who know me have never known me as anything else. It’s normal to them. It’s who I am. Even if the writing I was doing was a marketing brochure or an article for the newspaper, I was still writing.

Something else that just occurred to me: I am a fairly private person and hold my writing close. I can be gregarious and outgoing when I have to be, if I’m teaching or doing a workshop or giving a reading. And among a group of writers, I can talk about the craft and the business for hours on end. But I don’t do that with friends and family. I don’t talk about the daily ups and downs, the word counts, the business setbacks, the editing woes. I don’t talk about my plots and characters. In fact, I never talk at all about a work-in-progress while it’s in progress. I’m sure there are days, maybe a lot of them, when it comes through anyway, when people think I’m angry or sad or under the weather, but really I’m just lost in whatever story I’m working on. I do make an effort not to inflict all of that on others. As to whether I succeed . . . well, like I said, you’d have to ask them.

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

PFO: My list of influences is huge, and it’s still growing. It’s a special joy to know that I’m fifty-eight years old, have been a professional writer for thirty-five years, and still regularly encounter new writers who impress me, excite me, and make me want to get better. Just a short time ago, I discovered the work of Paul La Farge, whose book The Night Ocean was so good that I almost couldn’t move when I finished it. I was knocked flat by his talent. This may sound strange, but it’s a real treat to come across a writer so good that you immediately feel excited and energised, ready to sit down and write the Great American Novel, yet simultaneously want to retire from the business forever because you know you’ll never be half that good.

Looking farther back, I’ve been influenced by everyone from Dickens to Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, you name it. Wallace Stegner is my idol. John Barth. Phillip Roth. Vonnegut. The list goes on and on.

In the horror genre specifically, I grew up reading and loving all the classics, but it was specifically the trio of Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch, and Fritz Leiber who taught me how to escape the past and become modern. Later came Ira Levin and Tom Tryon, then King and Straub and my real role model, Charles L. Grant. Charlie is on my mind every day, every time I tap a key on my laptop. He heads up my list of favourite writers, regardless of era or genre. And he was an editing god. I tried so hard to sell a story to Charlie and never made it, but the kindness he showed me, the advice and encouragement he provided, will be with me forever.

Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

PFO: I hope all my stories capture a piece of who I am. I suppose that’s a process that happens naturally. As opposed to having a story say what you wanted it to say, which for me seems to be a much more elusive goal. I don’t know how many times I’ve started to write about X and ended up with a tale about Y. That’s part of the magic, the journey you take when you start out to write. It’s like a walk in the woods, and it’s easy to end up on a different path than the one you started on. Or to lose the path entirely and end up hacking your way through the underbrush. I enjoy that exploration. Writing would be boring if the route was smooth and clear and all the mile markers showed up where they were supposed to be. That’s one of the reasons I don’t outline very often. Having a GPS is great when you need to be to your cousin’s wedding on time, but otherwise I’d rather just go wherever the road takes me.

From time to time, when you’re really lucky, there is a story that veers off in an unexpected direction but still ends up where you wanted it to be. There’s a story in the Whispered Echoes collection, “Faith and Henry Gustafson.” I had a very clear picture in my head of where I wanted that story to go, and I was brimming with confidence, sure the writing would be easy. But suddenly, three or four pages in, I went right off the path and crashed into the trees. Just like that, I was writing about something else entirely, and a story that was going to be fairly straightforward was suddenly anything but. If I was a younger writer, I might have stopped for a day or two and thought things over, or even dropped the story in my desk drawer for a while. But I’d been in the business for a while by that point, and I knew enough to trust my heart and just keep going. I’m glad I did. When I was done, I was shocked to discover that the story said everything I had originally wanted to say, but in a much different—and better—way than I had ever expected.

Writing the final story in Whispered Echoes, the novella “Bloodybones,” was a similar experience. I had some definite plans for that story. I even had a few set pieces mentally sketched out before I started to write. I was almost certain I knew exactly where I was going. But the story, apparently, had different plans. By the time I was finished, almost nothing in it was what I’d originally envisioned. Yet, somehow I’d managed to encompass all the themes that are important to me, and I’d told a story I really liked a lot. I’m very proud of that one.

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

PFO: Gee, Joe, why do you ask? Have you been spying on me?

It doesn’t feel good to miss my target (which is 1,500 words, by the way), but really, I don’t worry about it too much. The longer you do this, the more perspective you gain. There will always be days you miss the mark, but often they are followed by days where you exceed it. I’ve had days where I struggled and fought and sweated my way to 500 words, and finished utterly exhausted, then cranked out an easy 2,000 words the next day. It all balances out in the end. And for beginning writers, it’s important to remember that writing every day is more important than how much you are writing. Doing 1,500 words is great. But you know what? Even ten words is better than none. The critical thing is sitting down and doing those ten.

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

PFO: That’s an interesting question. Because I tend to write quiet horror, a lot of people might expect me to say I have trouble writing about violence, about blood and gore. But that’s not really true. I can do the “wet work” when I have to. I just prefer not to. I like my chills a little subtler.

One thing I’ve tried and failed repeatedly to write is humour. I admire the great humourists of the world, past and present, and often, when I’m at the bookstore, I find myself searching for a great new comedic novel to read. But when I try to write it myself, I just can’t get there. Sometimes I’m able to fool myself for a while. I tell myself, “this is really working.” But then I print it out and read it and, nope, the words are just lying there flat on the page. It’s the opposite of funny. It’s anti-funny. I’m not sure why. Maybe my wit is so dry that it just crumbles to dust and blows away. Or maybe I’m just no good at it. In real life, people think I’m very funny. I can “leave ’em laughing” with the best of them. On the page, not so much. But I keep trying. Maybe one of these days, I’ll finally get it.

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

PFO: I guess I’m always thinking about writing, although not necessarily the project I’m working on at the time. I sort of automatically compartmentalise those things. When I step away from the keyboard, the project moves down to another level of my brain, where the unconscious continues to tinker away with it until it’s time to write again. Sometimes I’m shocked at the things that have developed when I sit down to start a new day of work. Where did that come from? I certainly didn’t think it up myself. Except, yes, I did. It just happened somewhere deep down, way below the surface, when I wasn’t looking. Meanwhile, the top level of the brain is always busy looking for new ideas, processing the things I see and running them through the writing filter to see if they have potential, storing away descriptions, capturing snippets of conversation. There’s probably a third level in there somewhere, too, where all those new ideas go to be worked on until it’s time to finally write them down. It’s probably best not to question the whole process too much, to just let it happen. It’s like seeing how the sausage is made. Once you understand it, you can’t eat any more ballpark hotdogs.

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author?

PFO: I’ve heard it said that an author is someone without any useful skills. That’s a humorous remark, but I hope it’s not true. I like to think the skills writers possess are very useful. Most of them are craft-related, but a few are more general. How to engage with the world yet remain apart from the world at the same time. How to talk to people of different backgrounds, and more importantly how to listen to them. How to cope with rejection. How to cope with failure. The importance of persistence. How to be alone for long stretches of time. Self-awareness. Self-motivation. Imagination. Empathy. Come to think of it, you can’t really put any of those things on a résumé. In that case, there’s always “good spelling and grammar.”

Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?

PFO: I like to think it kept me from changing. Being a writer has enabled me to maintain a lifelong love affair with magic and mystery, adventure and discovery. Most people grow up at some point and lose their sense of childlike wonder. I’ve been able to hold on to mine, to keep my imagination alive, much longer than the average person. I consider that a great gift.

Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

PFO: About four years ago, out of the blue, I received a Facebook friend request from a successful writer and editor who told me that my 1989 novel The Night Prophets was one of the first horror novels she’d ever bought, and that it had helped kick-start her career as a writer. Those were powerful words. Keep in mind, I’m not a household name and that novel had been out of print for several decades at that point. It had been years since anyone had even mentioned the book to me, and suddenly here was someone telling me that reading it had been a formative experience for her.

In the early days of Facebook, I also received a note from someone who went on at length about the boom days of the 1980s and how much he had enjoyed my magazine Horrorstruck. I’ve been blessed with a number of comments like that over the years. I only produced the magazine for a couple of years, but many people still seem to remember it fondly, which is extremely gratifying. But then he went on to mention my writing. He said that back in those days, he always looked for my name on magazine content pages, and if he saw it, he automatically bought the magazine. Comments like that are beyond wonderful. You work alone, you send your stories out there, if you’re lucky they get published, and then, often, you never hear another word. You wonder if anybody is reading it at all, or if it matters. And suddenly, years later, you get a note like that. Talk about making a writer’s day! That’s one of the reasons I like to get in touch with writers whose work I admire. Artists too. Everyone in this business needs—and deserves—to have their day made once in a while.

Joe: What is your lifelong goal as an author?

PFO: On the simplest level, it’s just to do good work, to write good stories and entertain people. On a deeper level, I have to go back to my role model, Charlie Grant. He was the guy I wanted to be when I was starting out. He wasn’t insanely successful. He wasn’t a name brand like Stephen King. He didn’t earn millions of dollars or have Hollywood knocking on his door. But he made a living writing, he did incredible, ground-breaking work as both an author and an editor, he was respected and admired by his peers, and he did it all while being a good, decent guy. Thirty or thirty-five years ago, that was all I ever wanted. And it still is.

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

PFO: I’m insanely proud of my daughters, who are now 28 years old and both incredible human beings. I don’t need any more legacy than that.

If you mean a writing legacy . . . of course, I’d love to be in print forever. But I know that’s asking a lot and probably unlikely. But if someday, somewhere, in some distant future, somebody stumbles across a story or novel that I wrote, reads it, and says, “Hey, that was a good story,” that would be more than enough for me.

Whispered Echoes

Whispered Echoes

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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 23, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

New Release: WHISPERED ECHOES by Paul F. Olson

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Journey through the Heart of Terror

Listen.
They are calling to you.
Do you hear them?
They are the whispered echoes of your darkest fears.

From the pen of horror writer Paul F. Olson comes Whispered Echoes, a stunning dark fiction collection that will carry you down lonely twilight byways into a world of darkness and dread. It’s a world of forgotten roadways, sleepy small towns, deep forests, windswept waters—a place where the uneasy spirits of your imagination roam free and anything at all can happen.

“Nowhere is Paul Olson’s narrative power, compelling voice, and unique sense of place more evident than in this wonderful, essential collection of hair-raising stories. Whispered Echoes is nothing short of a feast for those of us who appreciate old school horror with a nefarious modern twist, and with it, I hope Paul Olson gets every bit of the acclaim he so richly deserves.”—Kealan Patrick Burke, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of The Turtle BoyKin, and Sour Candy.

“Paul F. Olson’s fiction is by equal turns touching, chilling, weird, and just plain fun. Whispered Echoes reminds us what horror fiction should and can be: flat-out entertaining and soulful. Adding in Olson’s concluding novella “Bloody Bones” – perhaps one of the finest things I’ve ever read – and you’ve got one of the most satisfying horror/weird collections around.”—Kevin Lucia, the Clifton Heights Saga

“WHISPERED ECHOES is one of those rare collections I read cover-to-cover without a break. Written with the poise and elegance of a long-time professional, but with a depth of heart that transcends the prose, Paul F. Olson’s stories are packed with mystery, violence and humanity. Nobody has done small-town fear like this since Bradbury. Hands-down one of the finest collections I’ve read in the last decade.”—Philip Fracassi, author of Behold the Void

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Whispered Echoes

Whispered Echoes

eBook: $3,99
Author:
Journey through the Heart of Terror More info →
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  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 23, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

The Deep End interview…with Taylor Grant

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Joe: Tell us a bit (or a lot) more about your childhood. Primary school, high school, etc. How do you think your experiences benefited or influenced your career?

 TG: I am an only child who was raised by a struggling single mother. She worked long hours, so I spent a great deal of time alone. I read a lot of comic books. They were my gateway drug into the world of reading. I bought as many comics as my paltry allowance would yield, and thus began my lifetime love affair with stories.

In addition, my mom was an avid reader and film-lover. We watched movies often, from Gone with the Wind to Sunset Boulevard to Casablanca. But she also loved horror, sci-fi, spaghetti westerns—you name it, we watched it. Some of my most cherished memories of my childhood were going to the matinee with my mom. It was these experiences, along with reading comics during my many hours alone that inspired my love of stories.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how much of an impact TV shows/TV movies had on me as well.  Shows like The Twilight Zone, The Night Gallery, The Wild Wild West, The Night Stalker, and Star Trek made a huge impression on me. And I adored those wonderful 70s TV horror films like Gargoyles, Don’t be Afraid of the Dark, Duel, and Trilogy of Terror. 

During my formative years, I kept seeing the name Richard Matheson come up on many of the films and TV shows I loved, and that prompted me to seek out his prose fiction. I believe the first adult novel I ever read—when I was twelve years old--was Matheson’s I Am Legend. Soon after that, I read Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson (whose name I also recognised from The Twilight Zone).  

After that, I was hooked for life. From that point forward, I simply couldn’t go back to reading Young Adult fiction.


Joe: Can you recall a moment where you had to choose between being an author/artist and another career? A decisive moment where you decided to go all out?

TG: I served in the military, where I received some journalism training, and had gone to a year-long trade school in radio/TV broadcasting. I moved to Los Angeles with the intention of working in radio and hoped to get some acting work as well.  This was before the Internet and getting information on the ins and outs of Hollywood was damned near impossible from my small town in Arizona.

When I arrived in LA, I had no clue, no connections, and a vague notion of being a disc jockey or an actor. But after a brief time in the radio industry, I didn’t find it as creative as I’d hoped. And I also had some disheartening experiences as an actor that turned me off to that aspect of the industry.

As often happens in Hollywood, I sort of “fell into” an opportunity to write some animation for television—and fortunately, all of that comic book reading combined with some writing skills I’d developed in the military gave me the confidence to get the gig. The story editors of the TV shows Beetlejuice and Little Rosey were happy with my work, and thus began my professional writing career.

Once I had a few professional TV credits, I decided to bail on acting and focus on writing.  Interestingly enough, it has now come full circle. Over two decades later, I have recently gotten into professional voiceover work, and it has become a part of my career.


Joe: How did you respond to your very first success as an author? Was it just rewarding, or did it motivate you even more? Or, did it perhaps feel underwhelming, which motivated you to even greater heights? 

TG: I literally wept at my desk when I opened my first story acceptance. It was for a horror story entitled The Vood. Interestingly enough, at the time of my first acceptance, I had already spent almost twenty years working as a full-time writer (mostly screenwriting and copywriting), so I was already a seasoned pro. But this was different. It meant the world to me. Because it was my true voice.

What’s perhaps unique to my story is that I didn’t intend to be a published author. Several of my stories sat gathering dust in my drawer for years. I wrote them for me. I wanted to find my true voice. To write what I wanted to write—without compromise. For the joy of it.

It makes sense that those initial stories were dark fiction (horror, dark fantasy, sci-fi, suspense), because I grew up loving that kind of storytelling. When I began to have success selling my short stories, it was life-changing. It was the first time I had created marketable fiction, while also satisfying my muse.

Later, after two Bram Stoker Award nominations (one for my long fiction story The Infected, and the other for my collection The Dark at the End of the Tunnel), readers began to ask me the inevitable question: where’s your first novel?

I never planned to become a novelist. But now that I’m working on my first one—it all seems like it was meant to be.
 

Joe: How has your career as an author affected relationships with friends and family? 

TG: I have been a full-time writer for quite a few years. I write advertising (TV, radio, web). But I also write in other mediums and genres (film, short fiction, comics, etc.), and there is definitely sacrifice involved. I don’t have much of a social life. I write fiction whenever I can find the time—and fortunately, my family is pretty understanding and supportive of that. However, while I love my son more than I can possibly express, the little guy has never been very good at “quiet time so daddy can write”. So, that’s another challenge. It’s very difficult for me to write at home. So, I have to go to coffee shops a lot—which isn’t ideal, but necessary.

On the other hand, I believe kids learn by example, not by what you tell them. And my hope is that my son sees how dedicated his dad is to improving his craft and working toward a goal. That he understands that I don’t let life’s many responsibilities stop me from manifesting my dreams. I hope this will instil the same kind of focus, commitment and dedication in him over time.

I’ve had a fair number of people say I inspire them (due to maintaining a day job, a family, and juggling a successful freelance writing career). And that, more than anything, means the most to me.
 

Joe: Which author most influenced your early career? And who still does?

TG: There is no question that Rod Serling had the single greatest impact—and his legacy continues to this day. I adore The Twilight Zone. I even turned my son onto the show. I admire that Serling explored the darkest aspects of humanity with a grand imagination and an earnest social conscience. Serling cared deeply about the plight of his fellow man. In my own small way, I have tried to keep some of that alive in my own fiction.

The Twilight Zone also introduced me to Richard Matheson. Serling and Matheson are pretty neck-in-neck as influences go, but I’d have to give the edge to Serling.
 

Joe: Instead of just focusing on your most successful work, which story are you the proudest of, a story that managed to capture a piece of who you are?

TG: The Infected.  It’s the most personal story I’ve written. The theme relates to the gradual (and subtle) act of giving up on one’s dreams—and the consequences of it. I also explored this theme in my story The Silent Ones.

People living in quiet desperation are all around us, and it pains me greatly to see it. I find it heroic when people rise above their 9-to-5 routines and continue to follow their dreams and aspirations.  Not that there is anything wrong with a 9-to-5 job. Providing for ourselves and our families is to be greatly respected. And I mean that, sincerely. But when we use our jobs as an excuse for not doing things we love—that’s when the downward spiral begins. That’s when people die with the music still in them. It’s heartbreaking.

I was incredibly pleased that The Infected was published by the great Cemetery Dance Magazine, and eventually nominated for a Bram Stoker Award.
 

Joe: How do you feel when you don’t make your target words for the day?

TG: I once tried writing to a word quota—but that doesn’t work for me.  I now believe that writing takes the time it takes. Not a moment sooner or a moment later. We live in goal-oriented culture that robs us of enjoying the process. Not just in writing—but in everything we do.

Goals are good. But they are only the rudder. Being present. Enjoying the process. That’s what’s important. If that’s 50 words or 2,000 words isn’t the point. The point is to be present. Enjoy the process. Because we never “arrive”. If you simply focus on the goal, you miss the beauty of the journey.

Obviously if I’m on a tight deadline (due to a contract) that’s a bit different, but I still try to focus on the work, not the word count. But when I’m creating something on my own, then I don’t force a number of words. If I have written 10 sentences and I was fully engaged when I did it, I have accomplished my task for the day.
 

Joe: What’s the most difficult topic for you to write?

TG: Sex. All of the euphemisms just seem silly to me. 
 

Joe: What do you do to distract you enough to actually relax a bit? Or do you always think about writing?

TG: I do have to work at staying present. Don’t we all? My goal (and a challenging one) is to be fully engaged in whatever I’m doing, not just writing. When you’re present, you’re not listening to those thousands of random thoughts. I believe it makes for a better quality of life.

However, when I’m driving, walking for any length of time, or in the shower, I allow my mind to run wild with story ideas. Most of the best stuff has popped in my head during those three activities.
 

Joe: Tell us a bit about the people you met while researching a book. Are you still friends with some of them?

TG: I sold a military thriller (screenplay) called Bloodland.  While I was researching military signals intelligence, I met a guy on a military forum named Dave Reese. He helped me immeasurably with my research. Fifteen years later, we’re still in touch. Just a great guy.
 

Joe: Outside of the actual craft, what is the most useful skill you learnt from being an author? 

TG: Perseverance in the face of adversity. Sticking with something despite the odds, despite the rejection, despite painful feedback—this is the greatest gift I’ve received as a professional writer.
 

Joe: How did being an author change you as a person?

TG: It has made me more patient. As the axiom goes, a writing career is a marathon, not a sprint. 


Joe: Which response/comment from a reader has touched you the most throughout your career?

TG: After reading The Infected, a woman I know was so moved by my story that she packed up and moved to Hawaii to pursue her dreams.
 

Joe: What is your life-long goal as an author?

TG: To be authentic. To enjoy the work. To enjoy the process. To keep improving.
 

Joe: What legacy do you want to leave behind?

TG: To inspire others to action.

 
Author: Taylor Grant
The Dark End at the Tunnel

The Dark End at the Tunnel

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Genre: Collection
Offered for the first time in a collected format, this selection features ten gripping and darkly imaginative stories by Taylor Grant, a Bram Stoker Award ® nominated author and rising star in the suspense and horror genres. More info →
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Horror 201: The Silver Scream
Tales from the Lake: Volume 1

Tales from the Lake: Volume 1

$3,99
Dive into fourteen tales of horror, with short stories and dark poems by some of the best horror writers in the world. More info →
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Fear the Reaper
  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 16, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

New Release: NO MERCY – DARK POEMS by Alessandro Manzetti

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From the Bram Stoker Award-winning poet that brought you Eden Underground…

The Lady in Black shows no mercy to anyone; she has cold skin, a job to do, and many lovers on Earth: Despair, Loneliness, Madness, and their soldiers and killers of daily life, armed with blades, hammers, teeth, and illusions. There are strange and bloody stories that tell all about it, if you want to hear them…

Are you sure? Well, you’ve found the right place, but consider that in turning these pages you’ll be thrown forward through time, until you reach the Apocalypse—the last stop.

So, like the Lady in Black, show yourself no mercy—sit down and read these stories, listening to Janis Joplin with a bottle of Southern Comfort cradled in your arm.

Don’t worry, you’ll find both of them inside this book, along with so many other dark pleasures.

“No Mercy is a journey through time and history on a real/surreal road, rocking and rolling with no pity. Manzetti’s poems inspire a transcendent reality, a dream reality that slips in and out of nightmares; earthscape ruled by sensory overload, soul underload and imagination that melts into hunger for love, life and music. I loved this unearthly and yet strangely familiar meal laid before my eyes.”Linda D. Addison, award-winning author of “How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend”

“Marvelous, powerful work! Manzetti fills his canvases with broken souls –such as Janis Joplin, Frida Kahlo whose lives left footprints in our history. He introduces you to others with Inspiring imagery, giving the reader much to ponder. Simply outstanding, five stars!”Marge Simon, Bram Stoker Award winner

Brought to you by Crystal Lake Publishing – Tales from the Darkest Depths

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 09, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More

Cover reveal for the C.H.U.D. LIVES! tribute anthology

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The line-up:

Introduction by David Drake
Interview with producer Andrew Bonime
JG Faherty
Martin Powell
Ben Fisher
Mort Castle
Jason White
Chad Lutzke
Ross Baxter
Philip C Perron
David Bernstein
Nick Cato
Alex Laybourne
Michael H. Hanson
Christopher Fulbright and Angeline Hawkes
David Robbins
Robert Waters
Greg Mitchell
Tim Waggoner
Ryan C. Thomas
Jonathan Maberry and Eugene Johnson
An interview with screenwriter Parnell Hall

Coming November, 2017.

  Crystal Lake Publishing   Jun 06, 2017   Blog   0 Comment Read More