Archive for the ‘ Nonfiction ’ Category

WIRED TO THE HEART

The latest Written Backwards interview is with Tlotolo Tsamaase, a Motswana writer of fiction, poetry, and articles on architecture. Her work has appeared in literary magazines all over the world, and her latest, a novelette called “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born,” will appear in the forthcoming anthology Prisms, co-edited by Darren Speegle and Michael Bailey, to be published by PS Publishing.

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

Our paths crossed years ago (2015, believe it or not) when I was reading submissions as Managing Editor for a certain small press. Out of all the submissions received, yours kind of punched me in the face. Hard. I can still feel it. I was instantly drawn to your prose, and the world you created. The story is one of incredible value. In fact, I was this close (I’m holding my fingers together until they’re almost touching) to having you sign with that particular publisher. My only hesitation was that I was constantly thinking, “This is not small press. This is something more.” But of course, I also wanted your novel to help launch the new science fiction line that publisher was trying to get off the ground (it never took off, and we have since parted ways). I even had a few artists work on cover options. Long story short (and I won’t go into the details of that particular project), as with most small presses, there was a long wait from the powers-that-be to make decisions, and after some time you pulled the novel and let me know you were going try it with an agent. To which I enthusiastically yelled, “Yes!” (scaring my cats) and “This needs to happen!” (or something like that).

What I’ve learned about you since then as that not only do you write fiction, but you also write poetry, as well as nonfiction articles on architecture. Your story “Virtual Snapshots” appeared in Terraform and was shortlisted for a Nommo Award, and you have short fiction published in The Fog Horn (“The Palapye White Birch” and “Eco-Humans”), as well as Apex magazine (“Murders Fell from our Wombs”). Your poetry has been featured in Elsewhere Lit (“Home?” and “Fetal Sundays”) and Strange Horizons (“Constellations of You” and “I Will Be Your Grave,” which was nominated for the Rhysling Award).

I mention all these titles specifically (and with links) because they too tell a story. They provide hints as to what your writing is like, and perhaps what it’s about. Your titles are as intriguing as that of your novel, which I hope to someday see in bookstores.

Now, I probably butcher your name every time I say it aloud, although for some reason typing it is not a problem at all (I don’t think I’ve ever mistyped it). I usually pronounce it, “Lot-lo Sa-mace” with both t’s either silent, or slightly emphasized with the tongue.

So, the questions:

Michael Bailey: How do you pronounce your name (and I apologize if I’ve said it wrong these last 4+ years)?

Tlotlo Tsamaase: Oh, the t’s are definitely not silent. Here’s how you pronounce my name Tloo-Tlo and my surname Tsa-mah-ah-seh. Using phonetic sound symbols, a friend advised that the first name is /tlōtʊ:/ Hopefully that was close to helpful!

MB: Later this year, a short novelette of yours will appear in the anthology Prisms, which I co-edited with Darren Speegle for PS Publishing, and I’m proud to say (not only from my mouth but have heard it from Darren as well), that it’s one of the most intriguing stories either of us has ever commissioned. Like your other published works, it too has an interesting title: “District to Cervix: The Time Before We Were Born.” What can you tell us about that story?

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[ mock cover created in early development ]

TT: Thank you so much! The story is told from the male protagonist’s POV who, through guilt, reveals a secret to his close friend about how he betrayed his friend the time before they were born to explain. This line explains the gist of the story: “And who are we? Sexless souls warring to be born through the granddaughter—the way we want. My application to be born was approved several days ago … You choose who you’re born from, how, in what sex and all that shit.” The granddaughter of a household is pregnant with two children, and there’s a congregation of women in the kgotla deciding on the gender of these children and basically the roles they will serve in the eco-city they live in. Ultimately the decision lies with the sexless souls who, existing in a different realm, must fight and / or kill for the gender, ethnicity they want, as well as which family to be born in. The stakes: you could die and never be born.

MB: You have fiction published in magazines and anthologies around the world, which means you have a passion for short fiction (along with a passion for poetry). What first drew you to reading and writing short fiction?

TT: From a young age, I read children’s books and whatever novels we had in the house, which were adult titles like Sidney Sheldon, Danielle Steele, etc. I loved creating with my hands, building tiny houses, or writing out stories for my friends and I to act out. In primary school, my Standard 6 teacher found creative ways to get us into reading more, so I’d go through a million books in a week. Eventually, I wrote long romantic stories that were darker than romantic but remained as unfinished stories. It was also during my university years when I chanced upon Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. From the first page, I felt so transported; his writing was intermixed with voice and longing. And Helen Oyeyemi’s prose was chilling but had some dark aesthetic to it. It entranced me so deeply I wanted to learn how to do that, so I began reading as a writer and reading short fiction. Then a writer friend advised that I start out with short stories, which is good practice for writing. That’s when I also began experimenting in poetry.

MB: What brought you to poetry?

TT: Rumi! There is so much magic and beauty from Rumi’s poetry. Reading poetry, I found, comes with so many interpretations and by drawing so many meanings from the metaphors you’re able to relate and play around with words. I love Stone Bird Press’ Spelling the Hours; you just melt with the words. I attend local slam poetry sessions, and these artists are so talented; listening to a poet recite in Shona or Setswana and mix that with English makes their voice and language achingly beautiful. Going through these works teaches you what you can do with your writing.

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MB: What can you tell us about your nonfiction?

TT: I studied architecture at the University of Botswana, which is very intense and literally exercised my creative muscle. With that background, I wrote architectural articles for a local newspaper, Boidus. This included reviewing local designs and writing about built environment news. I would also write articles about people who had a creative background and were making a living out of their passion. It was a very enjoyable experience!

MB: Most of your short fiction (which sometimes dips into long fiction range), from what I have read, have a science fiction bent, but with so many truths hidden within. Is science fiction your passion, or do you find yourself writing other genres, or perhaps crossing multiple genres?

TT: Science fiction is my passion, and sometimes it tends to dive into dystopia. I have found myself writing in other genres like magical realism, which is quite an exciting genre to discover. Once before I dipped into fantasy, but by far my favorite genres to write in are science fiction and magical realism.

MB: You refer to yourself as a Motswana writer (Motswana being the singular form of “Batswana,” or also a person from the Tswana ethnic group in southern Africa). What can you tell us about your heritage? What is it like to write (or to be a writer) in Batswana?

TT: Writing from Botswana can be quite difficult in terms of character portrayal and showing various cultures as it’s writing from a non-western perspective, so it does feel difficult to fit in, especially if you’re writing from different genres or stories that don’t bow down to stereotypical representation. In some instances, the writing can feel like a process of erasure instead of creating a place of belonging. As much as that is a disadvantage, our backgrounds and culture are holy to us, allowing us to pour our experiences, background or culture into our work. Before you had to find a community online in order to interact with writers because locally there weren’t any authors to talk to or connect with. But the local writing community is growing: we currently have a book festival that invites authors; and just recently I was judging a local writing competition whereby we also get to mentor some of the writers. So we’re getting more and more people keen on writing, that’s really another way of preserving culture and showing the world our different voices.

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[ Tlotlo’s story “Who Will Clean Our Spirits When We’re Gone?” appears in the July 2019 issue of The Dark magazine ]

MB: The interviews I conduct are intended for all types of creatives (those writing fiction / nonfiction / poetry, those making music, designing books, painting, crafting; in other words, anything wherein the person involved is creating somethings from once-nothings). What would you like to share with those just dipping their toes into the ocean of creativity?

TT: It requires passion and discipline. I say this because I’ve had some writers who come to me with an interest to write or to learn how to write, but they don’t want to put in the work. They want shortcuts and mostly want their writing to be an instant money-making machine. Sometimes you have to do a lot of research, or you have to go through a draft a million times until you become sick of it.  When I started out, my writing was terrible. I spent years in novels’ pages, sleeping in their prose, pulling it apart until it bled into me, and I was saturated with a slight understanding of how to have a voice, which I returned with to my writing, and I failed and failed and keep failing by collecting rejection letters; instead of giving up, I used these rejection letters that came with constructive criticism as teachers. Working on your art can feel like war sometimes. But if you’re passionate about it, you will do anything to birth it into something. Having mentors is also good. I was in Justina Ireland’s Writing in the Margins mentorship program as well as Kate Brauning’s Breakthrough Writer’s Boot Camp, and both mentorships were very invaluable in learning about the industry and refining your work.

MB: What are you trying to tell the world with your own creations?

TT: My concepts tend to be sci-fi what-if questions that explore a limitless world and its impact on its characters. It looks at societal issues, deals with love and belonging. Lately my writing looks toward racism, internalized racism, as well as oppression of women and abuse of children, all with a sci-fi bent as is seen in “Murders Fell from Our Wombs.” But most importantly my writing tries to show multi-faceted characters with an African background appearing in genres they hardly feature in as main characters, like science fiction, fantasy and magical realism. There is freedom and sometimes happy endings that I hope readers will enjoy.

MB: If we were to look into the future, what would we expect from Tlotlo Tsamaase?

TT: Well, I would hope for my writing to be so successful that I can make a living from it. It would be wonderful if my writing could reach masses and inspire people as other works have inspired me.


Learn more about Tlotlo Tsmaase on her website, www.tlotlotsamaase.com, or follow along on Facebook or Twitter,


If you enjoyed this interview, you may enjoy some of the others. Previous interviews in this series include:

“The Hunger” with Alma Katsu
“Beginning to End” with Chuck Palahniuk
“A Little of Everything” with John Langan
“King of Illustrations” with Glenn Chadbourne
“Creator of Heroes” with David Morrell
“A Visit from the Tooth Fairy” with Zoje Stage

And coming soon:

“Not-So-Silent” with Tim Lebbon
“The Time It Takes” with Lisa Morton
“Poetry in Motion” with Marge Simon
“Spinning Yarn” with Josh Malerman
“What the Eyes Tell Us” with Daniele Serra
“Word Therapy” with Ramsey Campbell

BEGINNING TO END

Not long ago, Crystal Lake Publishing printed a slightly older version of the following article / interview, “Ah-ha: Beginning to End” or “Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Bailey Discuss the Spark of Creativity” in It’s Alive: Bringing Your Nightmares to Life, a recent recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Nonfiction.

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Chuck Palahaniuk is a novelist and freelance journalist whose work can only be described as transgressional fiction. He has written such novels as Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, and that’s all before 2002! He has written eighteen or so other books since then, such as his most recent novel Adjustment Day, a few coloring books, Bait and Legacy, and the graphic adaptations of Fight Club 2 (with Cameron Stewart) and Fight Club 3 (in the works). Adapted films of his work include Fight Club, Choke, Romance (based on his short story), and the forthcoming Lullaby and Rant.

With permission from both Chuck Palahniuk and Crystal Lake Publishing, “Beginning to End” is now free to share with the rest of the world, so enjoy!


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One lives in the Pacific Northwest and nearly lost his home in a wildfire the summer of 2017, while the other used to live in what is now a scorched part of Sonoma County from a wildfire the autumn of that same year. One’s surname is often mispronounced [ paula-nick, for those stumbling over it ], while the other’s surname is often mistaken as having Irish heritage [ Bailey, in this case, is English) ]. Both have been threatened by fire, both have problematic last names, and both have been nominated for the Bram Stoker Award on various occasions, and in a mix of categories.

Whether or not one believes in coincidence, these two magicians of creativity have been brought together, one thing leading to another thing leading to another, to discuss the spark of creativity from beginning to end. Something short and sweet.

Imagine these two strange fellows sitting behind laptops or notepads, conversing from places not-so-far-apart—perhaps one sips coffee, while the other sips tea (or maybe water or nothing at all)—to reveal some of their dark magic:


Michael Bailey: The first volume of Where Nightmares Come From focused on the art of storytelling in the horror genre, while this latest edition explores how storytellers transform ideas into finished product. Most writer interviews start with the obvious question: “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s not go there. Story origin has been done to death. Instead, how about: What’s the first thing you do after your mind sparks original concepts? In other words, what’s the very first thing you do after that original ah-ha! moment?

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Chuck Palahniuk: Once an idea occurs I repeat it to other people to see how readily they engage with it. And to see if they can offer examples of it from their own lives. And to test whether others have seen the idea depicted elsewhere in the popular culture. If they engage, if they expand upon the idea, and if they offer no recent examples of it in fiction or movies, then I proceed.

MB: What’s your first-draft poison: dictation, pen and paper, pounding tired keys on an old typewriter, fancy computer / laptop, tapping tablets, cocktail napkin notes, or a combination of sorts? How do you release your words? And once released, do they live primarily on virtual paper, physical paper, or both?

CP: I make all my notes on paper. Only after I’ve collected several pages of notes do I keyboard the notes into a word processing file and begin organizing them by cut and paste. The next step is to look for plot holes and create the bridging scenes or moments to resolve those.

MB: I used to have an uncontrollable need to transcribe the noise from my head directly onto the page. Early drafts were perfect, of course (in my undeveloped head), ready to sell without revision. I think most writers go through something similar at the beginning, before learning the stuff not to do. Early in my endeavors I met Thomas F. Monteleone and F. Paul Wilson, and they fortunately set me right. They explained that writing / storytelling is a disease (if one must do it) … and like all diseases, one can’t go untreated for long, lest they shrivel up and die. They took me under their wings and showed me the ropes, for many years. And they introduced me to Douglas E. Winter, who (also over the course of many years) taught me the art of self-editing (much more difficult than editing the work of others). He slashed and sliced that evil red pen of his until my manuscripts bled, severed them in half, typically. “Start here,” he’d say, “on page 13.” My writing has evolved, sure, and my writing has gotten slower because I can’t help but edit along the way. With all that pre-loading, I guess my next question is this: How ugly (or pretty) is a Palahniuk first-draft?

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CP: What you’d call my first draft is actually my third or fourth draft. In a story, each of the three or five acts gets its own draft, and each must work well before I tackle the climax of the story. That way my eventual finished first draft isn’t too shabby.

MB: And a follow-up: How has your first-draft evolved during your writing career? Do you binge and purge? Do you edit-on-the-go?

CP: My process has stayed essentially the same since 1992. I takes long-hand notes. Then, transcribe the notes into a computer file. Then, print the draft and carry it with me on paper so I can read and revise it anywhere in the world. Then use those edits to revise the computer file, print it and repeat the process.

MB: Some writers set daily or weekly goals, whether it’s word count or page count. Some try for 5,000 words a day, some 1,000. Some try for 5 pages a day, some 10. Some try to at least write something each day. And there are some oddballs, like me, who go for months without writing a single word, sometimes as long as a year (although I’m always doing something creative), when suddenly the mind takes a laxative and dumps out 10,000- to 30,000-word chunks. What are your writing goals and / or habits?

CP: As a physically active person I hate to sit and keyboard. Notebook in hand, I’ll go for weeks just jotting down details that might apply to a story. This used to be called “brain mapping” in the science of the 1990’s. It takes a stretch of rainy weather before I’ll settle down and begin to type. Often the typing takes place aboard an airplane or in a hotel room or some other stifling place where I have no other options. As for goals, each January 1st I decide what I will accomplish for the year.

MB: What’s the most you’ve ever written at one time (not necessarily in a single sitting, but what you’d consider all-at-once)? And how long have you gone without writing?

CP: My greatest single sitting output was the eleven-page story “Guts.” To be frank, that many keystrokes makes my elbows and wrists ache like you wouldn’t believe. Years at the Freightliner Truck Plant have left me with carpal tunnel syndrome, and any kind of marathon typing now requires a Vicodin. Blame it on the drugs, but that short story just poured out.

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[ read Chuck’s short story “Guts” in Haunted ]

MB: Writer’s block: real news or fake news?

CP: Writer’s block: Not my problem. As with any living thing, there are dormant and active phases. When I’m not actively writing I still watch and listen, always trying to identify new patterns and ideas.

MB: ‘Character’ is arguably the most important part of a story. Some say ‘plot’ or ‘conflict’ or ‘the message’ is most important, but they are wrong, no? Your fiction always breathes with the lives of diverse, colorful, incredibly memorable characters. Where do your characters come from? I realize that’s sort of like asking the “Where do you get your ideas?” question, but since ‘character’ plays such an important part of the story, it seems to be an important question.

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[ his most recent novel, Adjustment Day is now available ]

CP: My characters are always based on actual people. Their most memorable lines of dialog have already been said by real people. Even their dogs are real. Although I’m trained as a journalist I find that there’s more fun (and money) in passing off reality as fantasy.

MB: So you’ve spawned an idea, and created characters, and they converse through dialogue and navigate plots and traverse conflict, and the manuscript has maybe gone through a few drafts (or not) and all that other magic that happens during storytelling, and suddenly you find yourself with a completed manuscript—short story, novelette, novella, novel, comic / graphic adaptation … doesn’t matter. This interview started with an ah-ha! moment—the original spark of creativity—but there’s another ah-ha! moment to consider: the moment one realizes a story is complete. What next? Do you send it to beta-readers, let it marinate in a drawer somewhere, send it off to an editor?

CP: To date I’ve done my beta testing while I write. By testing each scene on my peers or fellow writers in a weekly group. This creates an informal collaboration and allows contributions from possibly hundreds of people. David Sedaris advised me to always test new material by reading it aloud on tours; that works well also. Nothing goes off to New York until it’s made people laugh or cringe everywhere else in the country—or the world.

MB: We recently discussed the fires in California and in the Pacific Northwest, as well as some of our losses and scares. I was lucky and for some reason already had my laptop in the car before fleeing from one of these fires (and I habitually upload files to off-site storage), but the threat of losing creativity begs the question: What if it all burned down? Where do you keep your creations, in case a fire someday threatens (or accomplishes) turning them to ash?

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CP: If you’re talking about past notes, drafts, books, I don’t keep them. I burn everything once the final book has been typeset [ something both writers now have in common after the fires ]. Regarding on-going work, I back-up to flash drives and keep them separate from each other—in my car, with friends—and I always have a printed hard copy of the work in progress.

MB: And since this interview / discussion is for It’s Alive [ a follow-up to Where Nightmares Come From ], what is your nightmare, the thing that scares you most?

CP: Plenty of things scare me. These include driving over extremely high bridges or being buried alive. But nothing scares me the most.

MB: Over the last few years I have collaborated with writers for fiction and have sought out collaborative works for anthologies I’ve edited. My next anthology is composed entirely of collaborations, even [ Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations ]. Collaborations are perhaps my new ah-ha! in this business, something of which I want to see more. I love the concept of multiple minds working together to create entirely new voices and visions. But I have yet to collaborate on 1) interview questions, and 2) with Chuck Palahniuk. So, how about we spin things around? My freelance work is roughly 33% writer, 33% editor, 33% book designer, and now 1% interviewer. What question, in the broad scope of ‘from concept to finished product,’ would you like me to answer?

CP: My question to you is: Do you think piracy has damaged the viability of writing professionally? And if so, how do you bring yourself back to the task despite that threat?

MB: There’s potential in book piracy eventually hurting the industry, but we’re not there, at least not yet [ maybe we are now, I don’t know ]; we may never get there. I would argue that eBooks, in terms of sales, have caught up to printed books, perhaps even surpassed sales in some cases, but I would also argue that most eBooks go unread. It’s easy to purchase digital books—a single-click sometimes. They are priced to move copies. It’s easy to fill virtual shelves with digital books because they are not really there and don’t take up physical space. They are simply strings of binary designed to mimic books, which is neat. But this also makes them easier to steal, sure, like music was easier to steal once it turned digital. How many digital books are read from start to finish? I’d guess 5-10%, if I’m being generous. A printed book, however, for now, is there, is something real, and harder not to read—if it’s pretty enough and smells like a book and you can hold it in your hands—and likewise harder to steal.

Here’s my confession, which might help explain what I’m trying to say. Before the fire (which took just about everything but our lives), I used to have a nice collection of Palahniuk on my shelves. I also used to have a Kindle with about a hundred titles, including your Kindle short story “Phoenix,” released in 2013, which I bought for $1.99 (a steal!). I have read every book of yours (that I used to own), from start to finish … except for one—the title of which I now find ironic because it’s the only book that still ‘exists’ somewhere in those 0’s and 1’s, and I could still read it on my laptop if I choose to. My physical books are gone, sure, but I’ll get new ones going forward, and I’ll probably read those before ever browsing my digital shelves.

My point: book piracy has potential to hurt the industry monetarily, sure (as piracy did the music industry at first), but we’ll always have books (like we’ll always have music). Piracy will never hurt the creative process. Books will survive as they always have. I would argue that those doing the stealing aren’t doing enough damage at this point, but someday (who knows?) they might, and the industry will adapt accordingly. Book pirates are most likely never going to read the books they steal, anyway, and neither are those taking them from wherever they take them, so who gives a shit? We’ll adapt. We’ll evolve. Musicians are still making music. Writers will continue to write, if they must, because writing’s a disease, right? All creators will continue to create as they always have.

No matter the threat, professional writers should continue to write professionally. Books will always have a place in our world, however they—and we—evolve. All we can do as writers is to keep writing. All we can do as editors is to keep editing. All we can do as book designers is to keep designing beautiful books. And readers: must keep reading (purchased books only, please). It doesn’t matter what tools we use to create, and it doesn’t matter what tools we use to immerse ourselves in those creations. We simply need to keep doing what we’re supposed to be doing.


Imagine the coffee and tea cups empty, or perhaps untouched this entire time and now lukewarm and undrinkable. Perhaps Chuck leans back in his chair, and Michael does the same. One stretches, while the other cracks his knuckles and winces. One looks to the blank wall and sets up the next scene, while the other looks off into the distance and listens for the voices. Both move on to the next project, for there are always next projects. There are stories that need to be written. There are deadlines that need to be met. There are books of various kinds in development.

 

CREATOR OF HEROES

The following is an interview with New York Times bestselling author David Morrell, master of the high-action thriller, creator of Rambo, author of such fine novels as First Blood, The Protector, and Murder As a Fine Art. He writes nonfiction, and for comics, and is a mentor to emerging writers and has a passion for protecting wildlife. And his latest collection, Before I Wake, is available June 30th from Subterranean. He’s all over the place, but at this moment he’s at Written Backwards to share a few things. Enjoy!

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The interview [ by Michael Bailey ]:

My first exposure to your work was in the form of a Halloween costume. This was either 1983 or 1984, which means I was either four or five years old when I first met a character by the name of “Rambo” (only knew him by that name) because my older siblings talked about him often. You published the novel First Blood in 1972, and ten years later, in the fall of 1982, the movie debuted (directed by Ted Kotcheff and starring Sylvester Stallone, who also contributed to the screenplay). Back then, movies stayed in theatres much longer, for years even, and First Blood was a huge success, grossing an unheard-of $125.2 million, which, way back when, was a lot of money.

Here’s where the costume comes in. My oldest sister came out of her room the following year (or the next) with fake blood dripping down her face and neck, her long hair tied back with a red ribbon around her forehead, and I believe she wore a tank top and a long black survival knife belted to her waist, the kind with a compass on the hilt (back then, you could wear such weapons in public). “I’m Rambo,” she had said, for Halloween, introducing him to me, and she explained the blood was there because Rambo had apparently jumped off a cliff and into some trees, scraping his face and neck. Let me repeat that I was either four or five years old, so I wasn’t allowed to watch such violent movies. This Rambo guy sounded kinda cool, I thought. And my sister, she’s kinda cool.

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Fast-forward another ten years, and I’m considered old enough to watch the Rambo movie (or perhaps not), and it quickly becomes a favorite. I watch First Blood a couple dozen times, and my older brother and I often play “Rambo” in the backyard, throwing knives at trees, making bows and arrows from fallen branches, scavenging to make forts in trees, crawling on the dirt, always running from something (like in the film). John Rambo becomes part of my childhood, and for the course of about twenty years, I don’t know there’s a book about this Rambo hero of ours.

Fast-forward another ten years, and I start writing fiction, poetry, anything I can think of. I don’t want to be a writer (and hate reading in general, at this time), but for some reason I have to write, like it’s some kind of disease. Sometime around then, I discover there’s a novel version of First Blood (why’d he call it that?), by some guy named David Morrell. And then I find his other books, such as The Brotherhood of the Rose, The Fraternity of the Stone, The Protector, The Naked Edge. I become a constant reader.

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Fast-forward another ten years, and I’m still writing, but seriously. I’m at some kind of boot camp hosted by Borderlands Press, with the likes of Thomas F. Monteleone, Douglas E. Winter, and F. Paul Wilson, and this David Morrell fellow I’ve come to know through his words and through his characters. The creator of Rambo! I’m thinking. The guy who created one of my (and my siblings’) childhood heroes! It’s thirty-something years later, and wouldn’t you know it, the idea behind First Blood is still relevant. My oldest brother, he’s been in the military all this time. He’s my own Rambo. He’s fought in the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and countless others, and he’s there during the fall of Saddam Hussein, helps take over the Baghdad Airport and later shows me a picture of him and a few others underneath a sign proclaiming that such a thing would never happen. And each time he returns from war, like many others, he’s perhaps looked down upon.

Fast-forward to the present, and I’m interviewing the creator of Rambo, and so many other incredible characters. And I’m falling in love with new series altogether, such as the Thomas De Quincy series, which starts with Murder As a Fine Art.

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The questions:

Michael Bailey: I promise this will be the only Rambo-related question, but his story is important to me and to so many others, so I must ask: Why do you feel the story of John Rambo is forever-relevant?

David Morrell: It depends on which Rambo we’re talking about. The character in my novel First Blood is furious about what happened to him in Vietnam, whereas the character in the film is a sympathetic victim while the character in the second and third films is jingoistic. Sly told me that in retrospect he wasn’t happy with the treatment of violence in Rambo II and III, which is why he saw the fourth film [Rambo] as his version of a Sam Peckinpah movie. The character was more like the one in my novel. “Wars. Old men start them, young men fight them, and everybody loses,” Rambo says at one point in the fourth film (the director’s-cut DVD amplifies the theatrical version). If we look for a common denominator, I suppose it comes back to the military virtues of courage, honor, loyalty, and sacrifice, which are virtues that everyone, not only those in the military, should emulate. I mention those virtues in my Captain America; The Chosen six-part comic-book series.

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David Morrell with Sylvester Stallone

MB: Movies based on comic book characters are perhaps the most costly but also the most profitable of all movies, with Avengers: Endgame recently grossing over $1.2 billion worldwide over a single weekend, and movies like Black Panther and Captain Marvel and many others making over $1 billion worldwide before their short runs (compared to the long-ago). Movies are only in theatres now for months, yet raking in insane amounts of money. Why are comic book characters such a big part of our lives?

DM: It’s about promotion as much as the characters. After the collapse of the DVD market, Hollywood producers looked elsewhere for revenue. They found it in China and India, where the theatrical-distribution systems were starting to make Hollywood films available in a big way. Comic-book heroes (and characters from films such as Star Wars) are so universally familiar that Oriental audiences recognized them, despite the differences in cultures. In marketing language, these films are “pre-sold.” As the revenue from Oriental audiences increased, studios made more films to satisfy that market. Meanwhile, to use the United States as an example, the binge-watching of television series is so popular that only films with a visceral magnitude motivate families to leave the house as a group. A family of four spends more than a hundred dollars to go to a movie (a low estimate). The impressive CGI effects and the wall-rumbling sound of superhero films aren’t anything they can get at home. The spectacle is the attraction. Marketers have brilliantly convinced families that these are experiences they ought to share, even though the action scenes can be prolonged and repetitive to the point that they’re numbing. That isn’t to say I’m negative about superhero films. I loved the origin films for Wonder Woman and Black Panther, which emphasized characterization as much as spectacle.

MB: Why are we, as people, so in need of superheroes?

DM: It depends on how we define a superhero. Remember that in the 1930s Hitler used elements from Germanic mythology to promote his agenda. For a superhero to appeal to me, that character needs to personify fairness, selflessness, the belief in equality, the protection of the weak, etc. Fortunately those values are what traditional comic books and Hollywood superhero movies represent. In our crisis-ridden culture, we need as many representatives of those values as we can get. I’m reminded that the mass shooter at the film theater in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012 opened fire at an audience watching The Dark Knight Returns. He could have been a villain in the movie. When I wrote my Captain America: The Chosen comic-book series, my theme was that each of us has within us the capacity to be a superhero. In my Spider-Man: Frost two-parter, my theme was the selfless meaning of Spider-Man / Peter Parker’s mantra: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

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MB: It’s not as well-known as some of your other projects, but you have dipped into Marvel comics, writing such series as Captain America: The Chosen (one of my favorite short-run comics of all time, the story you created as relevant as (or perhaps mirroring) that of John Rambo’s, once again making me think of my brother in the military), as well as a two-parter of The Amazing Spider-Man (#700.1 & 700.2), and an issue of Savage Wolverine (#23). The question: How much easier, or more difficult, is comic-writing vs. prose-writing?

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DM: I think of comics as stop-action stories comparable to storyboards for films. The dynamism comes from the jump between panels. One contrast between prose fiction and comics is that in fiction I can use all five senses to try to achieve a feeling of three dimensions whereas in a comic book I’m working in an emphatically visual medium, with limited sound effects that are printed on the page and require the reader to imagine them. Some readers might be surprised that a comic-book writer chooses the number of images per page (a single image or two or four or even eight images on a page) and describes what happens in each of those images. A 22-page comic book might have a script that’s as long as the comic itself. Moreover, what characters say or think needs to be kept to a minimum in favor of letting the images tell the story. I think of each page as a paragraph and try to use the bottom panel on a page to catapult the reader to the top of the next one. Similarly, when a reader turns a page in a physical comic book, I try to have a “reveal” on the page that’s uncovered. My essay about writing Spider-Man: Frost, can be found on the Writing page of my website, www.davidmorrell.net. The essay includes script pages and matching illustrations from artist Klaus Janson and colorist Steve Buccellatto.

MB: If you were given the opportunity, which comic series would you write next?

DM: Probably Batman, because of the psychological implication of caves and bats. He’s a DC character, of course, but I think my contract with Marvel has expired.

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MB: Okay, no more comic-related questions. You are well-known to up-and-coming writers (100% of those I encounter, at least) as a person always willing to offer advice and support, always going above and beyond, such as with your involvement in the Borderlands Press boot camps. Why is it important to help those new to the business?

DM: A couple of reasons. One is that the writing world is contracting. It’s increasingly difficult for beginning writers to get established. I recall the writers who gave me generous advice at the start: William Tenn, Stirling Silliphant, Donald E. Westlake, Brian Garfield, and Lawrence Block, to name some. I also recall how grateful I was. They told me to pay it forward, so that’s what I do. The second reason is that I‘m by nature a teacher. I love sharing information and explaining, which might be another example of paying it forward.

MB: You are also often involved with wildlife rescue, and have a few stories you’ve shared in the past with the wildlife where you live. What first sparked this need to help other animals and why is so important we do so?

DM: I’ve always felt close to animals and nature. One of my most transformative experiences involved living in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming for 33 days as a member of a Wilderness Expedition course through the National Outdoor Leadership School. That was research for my novel, Testament. I’ve always had my home in small communities with easy access to the countryside. I’m a gardener, especially when it comes to vegetables (and in New Mexico, that’s a task). I see my world as if it’s a Van Gogh painting with the universe’s spirit swirling through everything. The wildlife rescues started four years ago. I live in Santa Fe, near the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. One day I stepped outside and found a mother bobcat with two kittens. She stared into my eyes as powerfully as I’ve ever been looked at. But she wasn’t threatening me. Young and weak, she was pleading for help. I don’t feed wildlife. But I did let her use a copse of trees near my house as a den. I never bothered her. She and the kittens were there every day. Then one night, I heard three shots and knew in my heart that a neighbor had killed her. She never came back. I learned about the New Mexico Wildlife Shelter, who sent someone to teach me how to capture the kittens. I took them to the shelter, learned about its worthy mission, and have supported it since then. Last summer, the director brought a sharp-shinned hawk in a cage. The hawk had been injured but was now healed. I kept the hawk for a day as it became used to the sound and look of my wooded neighborhood. Then I released it. The hawk came back many times after that. On one occasion, it perched on a rain barrel and looked through our kitchen window. For me, that’s like going to church.

MB: As a creator of heroes, what single piece of advice would you share?

DM: If you mean advice about writing, my mantras are, “Be a first rate version of yourself and not a second rate version of another writer.” And “Don’t chase the market. You’ll always see its backside.” But the larger issue is the responsibility that comes with writing in genres that attract more readers than other types of writing. My work emphasizes action and suspense, but underneath there are embedded themes, and they go back to what I mentioned that I felt were the qualities of a superhero: fairness, selflessness, the belief in equality, the protection of the weak, etc. It’s no accident that I wrote three novels and three short stories about protective agents and that one of them is called The Protector.

* For additional writing advice, check out The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons About Writing and Publishing, and also his Writing page at www.davidmorrell.net.

A BOUQUET OF FLOWERS

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“A Bouquet of Flowers” by Michael Bailey

You’ve written something. Maybe your manuscript took a day, a week, a month, maybe longer to compose. Hopefully you’ve stashed it away somewhere to marinate, passed it on to beta-readers, re-written sections, thrown away the first page [or first few because most stories often don’t know where to start], or you have gone through a few drafts before calling it done. Is it ready? Probably not. Try again. Is it ready now, this masterpiece? Good. Let’s call it done and sell the thing.

“But where?” you might ask, always on the search for decent per-word pay rates. An anthology is a good place to start, if any are seeking submissions. Wherever you plan to place it, however, keep in mind that there are certain rules to follow if you ever want your work to appear in print. For the sake of simplification, let’s focus on the anthology.

The anthologists, they are [not] gods; they are [not] gatekeepers.

Before going further, the difference between collections and anthologies must be defined, as well the origination of the word ‘anthology.’ There is often confusion between the two. Collections contain multiple works by a single writer—bound red roses, for example, all from the same source. Anthologies contain single works [of all types] by multiple writers—bound flowers of various color from a multitude of sources. It’s that simple.

An anthology is defined as “a published collection of poems or other pieces of writing.” The word ‘anthology’ is derived from the Greek Anthos [meaning flower] and –logia [meaning collection], or anthologia, a word denoting a collection of the “flowers” of verse. So, an anthology is therefore defined as “small choice poems or epigrams, by various authors.” A bouquet of the written word, in other words.

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And the anthologists, the modern bouquet-makers, they are people, and they are on your side whether you believe it or not. They can become friends—people you want on your side [if treated properly], as much as they can become enemies—people you will never side with [if treated poorly]. They are creators [gods], like you, albeit with much wider scopes in that they are responsible for creating larger stories out of many smaller stories. Anthologists are readers, first and foremost. Most read more unpublished work than published, and very few are writers themselves. Anthologists are editors, some recommending minor adjustments while others requiring more extensive editing, depending on the want of the piece, and its current condition. And they are compilers [gatekeepers], in that by creating anthologies they must first filter through hundreds if not thousands of stories before making final selections on a select few.

Why would anthologists [or their publishers, or anyone, for that matter] ever want to spend money on what you’ve created? Are you worth it? How beautiful is your flower?

Some math: An anthology receives a thousand short stories, with only twenty to be included. This means you have a 2% chance of making the cull if what you’ve created is good enough [it better be], and adhere to guidelines. Factor in that most pro-rate anthologies are often half-filled with stories from invited writers, and your chance of inclusion drops to 1%. Factor in that sometimes anthologists first fill 75% of a book before ever offering a “call for submissions,” and that number drops to roughly half of a percent. Your odds, they are small.

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This thing you’ve created. What is it? It’s flash if under a thousand words, a short story if between that and seventy-five hundred, novelette if between that and seventeen thousand five hundred or so, and novella if between that and forty to forty-five thousand, which gets you into short novel territory. Novellas, they mostly have their own market now, albeit small, and the market for short novels is almost nonexistent. If what you’ve written—your darling, perfect manuscript—has dipped into novel­-length, then anthologists no longer concern you. In fact, if your story is anywhere over five thousand words, it’s going to be a tough sell to an editor for an anthology unless longer works are specifically sought.

Is your manuscript close to short story length? Six thousand is close, right? Seven thousand? Eight? Guidelines in short fiction markets most likely call for five thousand words or fewer, but editors don’t mind a little padding, right? Yes. Yes, they mind. Guidelines are established for a reason, and unless unrealistic [most likely non-professional], if you don’t adhere to a few simple rules [word count caps, content, formatting, et cetera], your story will go unread, in most cases, attachment unopened. Your story will be trash. Like fancy fonts? Like single-spacing? Like overwriting [not necessarily word-count but by what you might consider purple prose]? Like foregoing the marinating / self-editing / beta-reading stage[s]? Like bending guidelines? If so, you will soon become familiar with the term “instant rejection.” If an anthologist is specifically seeking short fiction in the five thousand range, and your story is a thousand to three higher than that, or longer, either start cutting, start cutting deep, or don’t send your story at all. If it’s close, get out the red pen; start highlighting, pounding Delete and / or Backspace until your fingers blister; most stories in the six and seven and eight thousand range work better as five, anyway. Cut until it hurts, and then cut more. Bleed your pages until all that’s left is what’s absolutely necessary. And never pad your story for the sake of word count.

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Some math: The average anthology runs 100,000 words, give or take. Twenty short stories, each five thousand words, adds up to 100,000 words. And some invited writers [more often than not]—with more selling-factor behind their names—tend to run long and sometimes get to run long. If the anthologist doesn’t cap payment on a specific word count [the “name” writers thus having more opportunity for income, or even offered higher per-word rates because of sell-ability], this in turn eats into the overall budget of the project. For the sake of word counts, this means there is indeed a reason for that hard guideline of five thousand words for the uninvited. It also means your odds of making it into the book increases if your word count decreases. Why? Editors often seek shorter fiction to make up for “name” writers taking their privileged space. The point? Stick to five thousand words as your own personal goal to benefit most from professional payment, but consider submitting shorter works to increase your chance of publication.

A simple rule to follow: Until you learn the art of self-editing, you will never sell a story to a pro-rate market. Master self-editing, and you will soon find yourself only selling to pro-rate markets. Another simple rule: Unless you are specifically writing for markets seeking novelette- or novella-length works, don’t ever send a story of such length to a short fiction market.

It all comes down to money.

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Some math: The average anthology runs 100,000 words, give or take. A pro-rate anthology offers five or six cents per word [or should, at a minimum]. This means the budget for the work to be included [the words only, the meat] is typically $5,000 to 6,000, give or take, not to mention editor payment, artwork, cover design, publishing costs, marketing, and all those other essentials required to sell the book. This means the average anthology budget could start anywhere between $7,000 to $10,000, often higher, which in turn means eventually selling enough copies to recoup that cost. The book, if it is to be “professional,” therefore, must include only the best, which is why the hard work of the anthologist often goes unnoticed.

Is your story “the best” [not just in your mind]? Is your story original? Is your story good enough to survive the great culling of the anthologist? It better be the best thing ever written. In a great bouquet [think the anthologies of Ellen Datlow, Stephen Jones, John Joseph Adams, Paula Guran, Thomas F. Monteleone, and many others], which brilliant burst of life is yours on display, or is your contribution lost in a bland display no one will ever remember?

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But your story, it’s done, you’ve cut your darlings, you’ve bled the page, so to speak, and you’ve cut every word not absolutely necessary like the Jack Ketchums of the world. Now what? What’s your story worth [to you, to the anthologist]? What should you [expect to] be paid? The answer should always be “professional rate,” but that is not always the case in today’s market, although it should at least be your first choice when deciding where to submit.

Aim high, always. Start at the top, pay-wise. Avoid anything other than “professional” if you can. five or six cents per word or bust! For science fiction and fantasy, this can be as high as eight to ten cents per word, sometimes twelve, so, if it fits, why not start there? Avoid “token” rate. Avoid “exposure.” Avoid “contributor copy only.” Avoid “royalty only.” Avoid “flat fee.”

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Why are you writing? For fun? For exposure? For charity? What is your self-worth as an “author,” as a writer?

Let’s say your story is the best damn thing ever written. Let’s say an anthologist likes your stuff. Let’s say he or she has offered to buy your story, or your non-fiction article, or whatever, perhaps after a few minor tweaks, perhaps after some light editing, perhaps after some heavy editing. Good. Let’s say that whatever it is works for the intended project, and an anthologist has offered you a contract. Good. Do you sign it? Your first instinct is to scroll through, looking for payment information, your mind saying YES! LET’S SIGN THIS THING! and your heart racing, and you’re all smiles because, out of the small percentage of those not culled, you and your work have managed to squeeze in amidst names you [hopefully] recognize and names you [hopefully] don’t.

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But the contract … what should you expect? Your goal, as a writer, is not to get screwed, always. It’s your work, after all, your name attached to the story, or whatever it may be. Despite the other names in the anthology, your name is now most important. What are you willing to sign away? Instead of relying on your first instincts of signing your name and dating the contract and announcing your fame to the world, there are important things to consider. Just as you are required to self-edit your work, you should be willing [as is your right] to edit contract details if they are seemingly unprofessional. Yes, you can do that.

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Look specifically at the terms. Are you willing to part with your baby for a year, two years, three years, or [never] indefinitely? Are you willing to part with audio rights? Are you willing to part with other media rights? Why would a publisher even need those? Are there plans for such things? Ask. If not, why are they in the contract? And why should a publisher have the right to keep your work in print for the proposed terms? How long will the book be in print? Does the contract allow for inclusion in “best of” anthologies or a perhaps a personal collection? If not, it should. Does the contract allow for split royalty if the book “makes it big” and starts raking in the cash? If not, only the publisher benefits. Read the contractual terms carefully. Red-line what you don’t like. Add what’s not there. If you are a professional writer, and you are working with a professional anthologist, this shouldn’t be a problem.

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This thing you’ve written, this flower, whatever it may be, if it’s good enough, and you’re good enough, the “anthologists,” the bouquet-makers, they will always be on your side, and soon you will find yourself not seeking “calls for submission,” but waiting for invites into future bouquets.