Friday, February 23, 2007

Stormy Weather

(Originally published in 2000, but I've lost track of who published it.)

When I was a young boy, living in Buffalo, NY, a late-night storm ripped the window right out of my bedroom wall. I was directly underneath the window at the time.

Sitting through last October’s Hurricane Floyd, I couldn’t help but remember that night from so many years ago. I was in bed, the only one awake in the house, listening to the wind whistle through my window, and shivering in the cold. Finally, trying to get warm, I lifted my legs up to my chest, and put my arms around my knees. As my hands touched, the window above my bed exploded inward. Glass shattered and flew through the air, and the heavy wooden frame of the window smashed down onto the mattress where my legs had been just a second before.

The window frame probably weighed as much as I did, if not more. It hit the mattress, sending me bouncing back up into the air. I really don’t know how I managed to stay on the bed when I landed. All I do remember is staring down at the floor from the edge of the mattress, at a thousand shards of glass winking back up at me, and feeling too detached from the entire event to realize that I should have been terrified.

Meanwhile, the storm made itself at home in my bedroom. Sheets of rain poured in through the ruined window, and an angry wind whipped through the room and slammed my bedroom door shut.

It was an old house. The door was warped. I had never been able to shut it on my own.

The wind actually closed that door. And also managed to lock it.

I’m going to go on the record and say that I’m pretty sure that I never screamed. The slamming door woke my parents, and my father was able to unlock the door from the other side with a screwdriver. It seemed like it took him forever. Finally, he opened the door, put on some thick shoes, and walked in to carry me back out.

I’m writing this the day after Floyd hit New Jersey. Last night, I sat in my living room, in another old house, with the wind whistling through the windows, and the old wood rattling in the rain. Twenty-some-odd years ago, I should have been terrified. Last night, I finally was.

And I sat there for three hours anyway, the lights turned up high, my legs wrapped in a comforter, and a book in my hands. I didn’t want to be there, but at the same time, it was the best seat in the house. I was warm, I was reading a good book, and even though the windows made me very, very nervous, I was safe.

There’s no shame in being afraid to die, only in being afraid to live.

What scared you today? Go write about it. Live a little.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Golem's Mighty Swing" by James Sturm

(Originally written for

The Golem's Mighty Swing

It's the 1920s, and a barnstorming Jewish baseball team called the Stars of David is traveling from state to state, playing games with local teams and barely making it out of town with their winnings and their skins intact.

Team manager and third baseman Noah Strauss, the aging "Zion Lion," holds together a tired, rag-tag team, including his hot-headed little brother, Moishe. It's Noah's job to keep the team going through an exhausting schedule -- as the book opens, the team is playing its twentieth game in 14 days -- and to make sure they get paid. It's not always that easy. When their ancient bus breaks down one day, the team finds themselves stuck in a town where they can't pay for hotel rooms. And if they don't move on, they will miss several more well-paying games they can't afford not to play.

Enter an unscrupulous baseball promoter. He wants to make the Stars of David into a star attraction. His idea: create a Golem to stir up the crowds and increase ticket sales.

The Golem is a creature out of Jewish legend, a man made out of mud and dirt to "be a companion, a protector or a servant," says Fishkin, one of the more religious members of the team. "To give a golem life," he says, "esoteric rituals are performed, ancient incantations spoken. Only a kabbalist who has studied for ages possesses such knowledge." Not looking to perform real magic, the Stars instead get one of their team-mates, an ex-Negro League player named Henry (playing on their team as a member of the "lost tribe"), to don a costume and act the part of the Golem.

It works. But it doesn't last.

The book is a vivid portrait of racism in the early 20th Century. The abuse suffered by the Jewish team members at the hands of the local townsfolk is frightening, and the tales of Henry's days in early black teams are positively chilling. And to top it all off, I've never seen a baseball game as dramatic and full of tension as the games in this book.

Sturm tells a compelling story filled with wonderful characters. He uses a bold, simple stroke both with his words and with his artwork in this graphic novel. He effectively uses a slightly cartoony art style to tell a very serious story. It's not to be missed.

Four stars

Writers: Shut the Hell Up

(Originally published in 2000 -- long before the explosion of the blog, MySpace, YouTube, etc., etc., etc.)

Message boards and e-mail groups for writers should be a great resource. Information sharing, markets, self-promotion, a chance to talk about writing, right?

Wrong. Let’s face it, the average message board is just a chance for people to gripe, snipe, attack, gossip, and generally act like high-schoolers all over again.

So stop it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: as writers, you are professionals, and you should behave as such. That means no gossip, no insults, no attacks, no hiding behind pseudonyms or funny names. That means you deal with people fairly, and then you shut the hell up.

Every time you explode on a message board and blister someone who’s offended you, or get in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out verbal war, it’s out there for everyone to see. Forever. No matter how justified you think you are, you are really just presenting yourself as an angry egomaniac. What editor would want to work with someone like that? What reader would want to read your work? You’re just damaging yourself, and you’re doing it permanently, because those messages are never going away.

Just like high school, it’s your permanent record.

So come on, let’s use those boards and e-mail groups for information and for helping each other out. Take all of the rest of that anger and energy and put it into your writing. That’s what we’re all here for after all, right?


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Dem's de Breaks

(Originally published in Jobs in Hell, July 2000)

When do you take a break in your writing? No, no, not what time do you get up for a drink of water, when do you break from one paragraph to another?

In reading entries for a recent short story contest, I saw paragraphs that would go on and on and on and on (and on), often for pages at a time. Ouch!

There are a few rules for knowing when to break from one paragraph to the next. Now, fiction does not have to follow the most formal of rules for writing. You can structure your words for greater effect, but if you think about these while you’re writing, it will help you to keep the flow going.

Break into another paragraph whenever you:

  • have another character speak
  • switch settings
  • establish a new idea
  • want the reader to pause
  • change the pace of the story
  • make a revelation
  • switch point-of-view
  • change emotional tone
  • feel like it

In non-fiction, paragraph structure usually follows the path of an idea: theory, supporting details, conclusion. The next paragraph would then chart the next idea. Not a bad thing to keep in mind.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Graphic Novel Review: "Alec: How To Be An Artist" by Eddie Campbell

(Originally published in 2001 at

What is Alec: How to be an Artist? Autobiography? Fiction? Essay? History? Criticism? All of the above?

Campbell has been drawing his semi-autobiographical "Alec" strips for about two decades now. Uncomfortable with referring directly to himself, he uses the character of Alec MacGarry to tell a slightly fictionalized version of his life. These stories have followed Campbell from the British small-press comics scene of the eighties to the completion of his better-known books like "Bacchus" and "From Hell" in the nineties. The latter, drawn by Campbell and written by Alan Moore, was the basis for the recent Jack the Ripper movie.

The narrative of this book follows much the same path as Campbell's comics career. It's written in a bizarre future tense, as an unnamed narrator tells a young Alec MacGarry what the future will hold for him, and "How to successfully be an artist (not to be confused with 'becoming a successful artist')." It's an effective voice, showing wisdom, personal reflection, and a hint of regret over events and days gone by. We see Campbell (or, MacGarry) struggling in boring day jobs while he works to create his comics art, moving from place to place, and interacting with the British comics scene. We see the growing relationship with his wife-to-be Annie, and how he leaves the life he knows to live in her native Australia. We see what the fates bring to the life of an artist, and how the author will handle them with a combination of humor, self-doubt, drama and creativity.

As much as this time will be a crossroads for cartoonist MacGarry, Campbell also depicts it as a crossroads for comics in general and the development of the graphic novel. At some point the book becomes as much a history lesson and a literary criticism of the still-emerging graphic novel field as it is autobiography. He looks at the major works of the eighties, their critical and commercial success, and wonders where the field has gone from there. And he isn't very happy with the results.

Ultimately this is one of the more effective of Campbell's autobiographical strips, but perhaps the least resonant to anyone who is not already familiar with the comics market . The pages depicting his early life and his relationship with Annie sparkle with universal emotion, but the other relationships discussed have a professional distance that makes it difficult to understand their importance.

The book also suffers from an unwillingness to discuss Campbell's own work. We know that the character of Alec is struggling to be an artist, and we see some early submissions and much discussion of "From Hell," but huge chunks of his career and output are omitted. It's impossible to judge his success as an artist if we can't see what he is trying to accomplish.

On the art side, some may find Campbell's scratchy line drawings off-putting. I loved his artwork, though. His style in this book is loose as loose can be, conveying more in less lines than the work of many of the artists whose work he excerpts in his discussions of the comics medium.

Why should we care about the semi-autobiography of an artist? The book is more than just an artist looking at himself. He's looking at the process of becoming an artist, and of growing up. The book sparkles with wit and passion, and it depicts a journey of self-discovery that we can all understand.

Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001, $13.95

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Book review: BITE by Richard Laymon

(Originally published in 2000.)

I’ve been hearing about Richard Laymon for years now. He’s got quite the cult following, and many pros talk about his books with a certain reverence. But American publishers haven’t released any of his novels in this country in years, so I haven’t been able to read him.

Until now. I was excited to pick up Laymon’s BITE, previously only published in the UK, and now available in the States thanks to Leisure Books. And so, Laymon novel in hand, I started to read.


And then, after 80 pages, I was tempted to throw the book across the room and shout “BITE sucks!”

You see, the characters in the beginning of this novel just don’t act believably, and the action is so very over the top. Cat, Sam’s former almost-girlfriend and the object of his obsessions, comes to him in the middle of the night, after a decade or so apart, reveals that she’s been living in the same town as Sam for years, and asks him to kill the vampire that attacks her many nights a month. He thinks about it for a minute, says yes, hides in her closet, and kills the vampire.

All of this happens in the first 33 pages. And I didn’t even mention the kinky sex.

But you see, the slain vampire doesn’t disappear in a puff of dust like they expected. And so, for the next 350 pages of the novel, Cat and Sam are on a quest to dispose of the body of the vampire that they just killed.

That’s when it starts getting good. And that’s when it starts getting funny. And funnier. And funnier. It’s still over the top, and it’s still unbelievable, but BITE ends up being a truly enjoyable romp of a crime novel.

It’s really an interesting concept, using the vampire not as a villain, not as a character even, but as a catalyst for the twists and turns of the plot to come. BITE is hardly your average vampire novel. For that alone, it gets my recommendation.

Maybe I didn’t understand the tone Laymon was going for in the first 80 pages. Maybe I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe those pages just didn’t work as well. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I had fun.

I still don’t like the first 80 pages, though.

Archival or Arch-Rival?

With more and more magazines publishing on the Internet, writer’s rights are becoming more and more of an issue. One unique element of the webzine can work both for and against the writer is archiving.

Simply put, archiving is the webzine's equivalent of back issues. Many (but not all) webzines keep older issues, or the content from those issues, on their sites and available to readers who want to go back and catch up on what they have missed. Webzines do not have the right to use this archived material for any other purpose, at any other time, in any other medium, without contracting you again first.

All archiving rights and permissions must be fully defined in your contracts with the individual webzine. With that in mind, there are a few major concerns that you should be aware of when dealing with archiving:

  1. Never give a webzine the right to archive your work indefinitely. Make sure that your contract gives a set time period -- say, a few months to a year -- then cuts it off. If a webzine insists on permanent archiving, I would recommend that you say “no thanks.” Any magazine or publisher has the right to sell backstock, but no one has the right to sell your work forever without offering you additional payments. If it were a print magazine or book, when the initial print run sold out and went out of print, they could not print more without paying you more. Just because an electronic webzine can not technically go out of print, there’s no excuse for them to sell it forever without further compensation.
  2. Never give a webzine exclusivity to the piece during the time it is archived. After the original posting period (a month, two months, whatever -- until the next issue is supposed to be up), you should be free to submit and sell and publish it elsewhere. Some contracts ask for this long-term exclusivity; whether you accept it or not is up to you. Remember that you have sold the webzine specific rights, usually Internet-specific publication rights, and all other reprint rights belong to you.
  3. Note the phrase “until the next issue is supposed to be up” in the previous item. Webzines are notoriously late with their new issues. If you are waiting for that next issue to appear before rights revert to you and you start sending your work out again, you could be waiting a very long time. (Especially if, as often happens, the issue you are in suddenly becomes the last issue, and it will remains posted in cyberspace forever, frozen in time for all to see.)
  4. Many webzines request the right to archive a work until you say you would like to have it taken down. This can be a good option -- it gives the webzine content, it shows a certain amount of respect for the author, it allows readers to continue to find your work, and it gives you the chance to keep sending it out to try to sell it again, and only take it down if you want to sign another contract that would give another publisher temporary exclusivity. If a webzine editor offers this option, make sure it is stated in your contract, and that it offers a time frame. “We will remove your work within two weeks of notification of your request,” for example. (A short period of time like this is acceptable -- people do take vacations, so you can’t expect them to take your work down on an hour’s notice.)
  5. Finally, remember that follow-up is vital. If a webzine says it will take something down at a certain time, make sure that they do. This is your work, your property, and you are allowed to harass people if they are not following the terms of their contract. Sometimes, it might look like the work is down, but if you look hard enough, you can find it on a lone section of their server that might not even be linked anywhere else. This happened to me recently with SF Goth’s Errata. They published my story “Happy Birthday,” and did not archive it, but a search on Yahoo found a lone page, not even linked to the rest of their site, that still had the story posted. If I could find it, so could someone else, who would now be reading the story without my getting paid.

More serious were my recent dealings with Gathering Darkness. A simple Internet search revealed that they had a story of mine on their site in their archive, but it had been posted there without my permission, without notification, and without compensation. Talking to other writers whose work appeared on that site, I found at least five other authors who had no idea that their work had been archived there. I demanded the immediate removal of my copyrighted property -- as did several other authors -- and it was taken down. Before that happened, I had to give editor Dan Good a short lesson in copyright law. Since then, I have noticed several postings on the Net from Good, suddenly seeking to contact every author he had published in the past, to clear their archive rights with him.

So the question remains: Should you archive? I think it’s up to you. Just make sure that the terms are acceptable, and that they benefit the creator as much as the publisher. Remember, your writing is your property, it’s up to you how it gets used.

Help! My Writing Career is Haunted!

Ghosts really do exist. I should know. In my brief time as a writer, I’ve had the occasion to be one.

By now, you have probably figured out that I’m talking about ghost writers. It’s a fairly taboo topic among some of the writers I know, but I’m not ashamed of my experience among the legion of the unbylined.

It was about eight ago, just after I got out of school. Jobs were scarce (ok, non-existent), and I was getting frustrated. I had the skills, but not the clips or the experience to get myself noticed. Then an opportunity came my way.

I had interviewed with a company that made how-to gambling videos. Not exactly glamorous work, but hey, a job was a job -- or, as the case turned out, not a job. Times were tough, and they weren’t doing well enough to hire me full-time. But they could still use me.

This same company also put out a monthly newsletter and a weekly syndicated column, all under the name of the company’s founder. They needed articles, and since they knew from my job interview that I was a collector at heart, they handed me a book on collecting vintage slot machines and asked me to write an article.

I did, and they liked it so much they asked me to write another article on the same subject. They both saw print, sans my name, of course, but I got paid well (my first paid writing assignment) and I got some experience I otherwise might not have.

And that was the key. I didn’t need to know anything about gambling to write for a gambling column. I did the research, I wrote what I knew, I got paid, and I got two clips. And that helped me get more jobs later on down the line. It’s still a publishing credit that shows up in my cover letters sometimes, too.

So here’s the lesson from all of this: Any writing is good writing, whether it has your name on it or not. Every word you put to paper leads quite naturally to the next word. In my case, one article led to a second article, and then to other assignments, and finally to full-time employment later down the line. With every thing you write, you get a little bit better, and that much closer to the next sale.

Take the opportunities that come your way. Don’t worry about getting a byline or getting paid -- just get your work into print. Show people that you can write, and get editors to know your name. Every credit you get brings you one step closer to being a professional, one step closer to respectability.

And if you get a paycheck out of it, too, then hey -- you’re that much more ahead.