Category Archives: Writing

Horror: The Cult of Exotic Death


By Paula R. Stiles


One day when I was 14, my maternal grandfather bit into a burger and nearly choked to death in front of me and my cousin. It was fall and our extended family was passing through Lebanon, NH, so we had stopped at the A&W Root Beer restaurant there (sadly, now long gone) for supper.

Beloved and much-missed Grandpa Van was not eating too fast. He hadn’t taken too big a bite to eat. No. His throat muscles had atrophied thanks to his recent diagnosis of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, now known as ALS. He died a few months later. Ever since, I dread whenever water or a bit of cracker goes down the wrong pipe. You see, ALS can have a genetic component. And it can skip a generation.

We all fear what Stephen King once called “the bad death.” What’s funny, though, is what kind of bad death we want to see in our horror stories. The more exotic, the less likely it is to take us, the better.

Zombies? Check. Vampires? Sure. Werewolves? Absolutely. Flesh-eating bacteria? Uh-huh. World-killing flu? Why not? Balloon-carrying, clown serial killers? Alrighty-then.

Heart attack? Cancer? MS? Alzheimer’s? Not so much. At least, not straight up with no chaser.

Sure, good horror does often evoke real-life horrors in a metaphorical way. We see a lot of domestic abuse in horror (and yes, domestic abuse is very common in real life), especially in the vampire sub-genre. And there’s body horror, which often mimics what a parasite from some hot and far-away part of the world can do to an unsuspecting First World body. In fact, some things (like rape) are not only very common, they are portrayed in many works as universally happening to female characters in a tone-deaf way. It’s a free-for-all of gender violence aimed at women in a lot of horror.

But let’s face it – your odds of being whacked by a killer clown while at summer camp are much less than getting lost and dying of exposure, or being killed in a car crash on the way home (or sexually assaulted). But what do we see in theaters and on our bookshelves? Endless movies about hot, young teens whittled down by some chainsaw-wielding maniac. Or zombie horror. Or vampires, sparkly and otherwise.

Admittedly, some of this has to do with the target audience – complacent, social-anxiety-ridden teenagers who think they’re physically invulnerable, for the movies; young, white men for books and graphic novels. When the genre does bother to target other groups, it splits off to paranormal romance for women (young women, of course, because why would older women read books, am I right?) or magical realism/literary for People of Color, both writers and readers. Horror writers and fans look down on these two categories, even though paranormal romance, like most things romance-genre-connected, sells like hotcakes while horror is considered a genre ghetto. Older people who actually buy a whole lot of books might as well not exist in the eyes of those selling them, at least when it comes to horror.

Still, I think a lot of it boils down to simple escapism. King talked at length in his two non-fiction books, Danse Macabre and On Writing, about how he put a lot of his early struggles with poverty and alcoholism into his books. And those elements definitely ground his books in a way that lesser books by lesser authors are not.

But even there, these themes are distanced by the supernatural element. Jack Torrance struggles with his alcoholism and isolation (and being so broke that taking a caretaker job with his wife and son at an off-season hotel in the middle of winter and nowhere is a great opportunity), but those are just the elements of his personality that make him vulnerable to the ghosts. The ghosts are what push him over the edge.

If he went over the edge due to the drinking and isolation, that would be drama. In horror, the ghosts aren’t just metaphors. They are real. So, there’s always an external element of threat in horror that doesn’t exist in straight drama that perhaps makes the threat easier to connect with emotionally.

It’s much easier to deal with things like genocide in The Martian Chronicles when it involves Martians and hypothetical spacemen than when it involves your direct and not-so-distant ancestors (or cousins). Dementia and mental illness are more tolerable in the context of The Twilight Zone than a hospital room. And nuclear holocaust, despite attempts by Hollywood to make it “respectable” drama, was monopolized by the horror genre early on. Nobody ever wanted to think about nuclear bombs in a “realistic” context.

This may be why people seek out horror despite its dark themes. And it may be why some themes (which can be given a horror spin more easily) are more common that others. The fantasy element is like a shield that allows you to see Medusa without being turned to stone.


Happy Halloween, everyone!


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Telling Stories


By Jim Lee


I have recently published a book of 21 short stories entitled The Haze of Memory. These stories, mostly fiction but also a smattering of non-fiction, are based on events I have experienced and people I have encountered throughout my almost six decades of life on this earth. In the foreword, I wrote that although I put “teacher” as my occupation on my tax forms, I consider myself a writer. But in the final editing of the book, I almost changed that line. And now I am asking out loud (and if you write on a frequent basis, you may ask as well), am I a writer or a storyteller?

There is a difference between the two. Storytellers do not necessarily create the stories they tell. They often retell stories that are important to the culture or the history of a group they identify with. Every family has that one person who is the repository of family lore and you can find that individual surrounded at Christmas or reunions with a rapt audience. I serve that role for my daughter and she will often ask me to relate the events of her adoption or how her granny got stopped for running a red light to avoid dumping a lemon pie on the floor of her car.

Writers, on the other hand, are more concerned with universal themes, interesting characters, or the significance of a setting. Much modern literary fiction has even disposed of some traditional elements of storytelling completely or deconstructs them to such an extent that the writing becomes to literature what a cubist painting is to modern art: The elements are present, but they are disproportionate or displaced. Don’t get me wrong. I can appreciate what the writer is trying to do, but I don’t enjoy it. I only go to an art museum once every couple of years and I can appreciate the pieces I observe there; the art I have in my home, however, is what I enjoy. In the same way, since I read for pleasure (as I suspect most people do), I want my writing to be more accessible to people.

While I want my writing to be enjoyable, I also want it to be purposeful. I know my fiction does not rise to the level of “literary” writing, but I want someone who is educated to be able to appreciate a level of complexity that adds to their enjoyment. Therefore not everything I want my reader to get out of the story is explicit in what is written. Histories and relationships between characters, for example, are often only hinted at, but if you want to spend the time and energy thinking about what those relationships are, you certainly can. In my story, “Wandering in the Shadows,” the parents are headed for a divorce and the mother may be having an affair. That fact is never stated, but it colors the relationship that the father has with his daughter and the depression the daughter is exhibiting. The casual reader can still enjoy the story and find a level of understanding that he or she is comfortable with, but the more-literary reader can find something more.

I suppose I am hung up on labels because I, as most writers, I suppose, want to be taken seriously. Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation’s Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award in 2003 and a number of the members of the organization boycotted ceremonies or even canceled their memberships in protest. Their point was that King is not a “literary” writer; he’s just a glorified storyteller. But more people are reading, and in my case writing, because they were introduced to literature through King’s books than the esoteric writers the NBF honors annually.

In his book, On Writing, King famously stated that a writer writes not because he wants to, but because he has to. By that definition, I am a writer. I have to write. When Paula gave me the opportunity to write this entry, I had already been considering writing this essay, and I am grateful for the opportunity for it to reach an audience wider than my Facebook friends or writers’ group. I had to write it; it was going to burst into existence. But I’m a writer who uses traditional storytelling as the vehicle for my literary vision. My stories move emotions, whether to laughter or tears. My stories teach lessons that someone may not otherwise have an opportunity to experience. I don’t envision winning the National Book Award, but literary journals publish one of my stories every now and again, and my writers’ group seems to enjoy them. So, I’ll keep writing stories and publishing them on whatever platform for whomever wants to read them.

Because I’m a writer. Who tells stories.

haze


Jim Lee’s book of short stories, The Haze of Memory: A Literary Autobiography (by James T. Lee), is available on Amazon.com or through the CreateSpace community.



Cheap, Fast or Good: What You Can Expect From Me As An Editor


By Paula R. Stiles


It’s called the Project Management Triangle. Most people know it as “Fast, cheap or good.” The principle is that you can do something quickly, cheaply, or well. At best, you can do two of those at once but not all three.

It’s almost a mantra among professional editors. I run into this conflict with clients because writers are frequently strapped in their budget, but they’re also in a hurry to get their book out, whether to a publisher or an agent or self-published. Naturally, they also want it to be good. But they don’t understand why they can’t have all three.

I regularly see authors on sites I shan’t name offering to pay $100 or less for novels of 80,000 or even 100,000 words. I’ve seen people who want “just a last-minute go-over” (they mean a proofread, really), offering $20. I’ve even seen $6, with the idea that I’d be gaining valuable experience working on their manuscript. Um … no. I’ve been writing for, tutoring, and editing English students and clients since the late 1990s. I really don’t need that kind of experience, anymore.

So, why doesn’t that kind of offer work? Why can’t it guarantee you a good edit? Sure, a proofread is different from a copy edit, let alone a substantive edit, but it still requires that I read your book to do it.

Let’s look at a 100,000-word book. The industry standard is 250 words per page, which comes out to about four hundred pages for that word count. How long does it take you to read a page? One minute? Two? Six? Ten? If you, say, read 60 pages per hour, that takes you 6 hours and 40 minutes to read a 400-page book. If you pay me $20 for it, that’s $3 per hour. If you pay me $6, it’s less than $1 per hour. Even if you pay me $100, that’s still only $15 per hour – somewhat over minimum wage but still not that great. And how much do you think I’m going to catch reading one page per minute?

A more realistic number would be 10-12 pages per hour for a proofread, 5-10 per hour for a copy edit (what suffices for your average fiction novel without significant structural problems). It can be as little as 1-2 for a substantive edit or an edit of a particularly complicated piece of writing (such as an academic book with footnotes) and the hourly rate for that actually goes up because editing at that intensive level is hard. These are professional standards as set down by the Editorial Freelancers Association. The EFA also lists $30-$40 per hour as the lower end for editing. The Writers Digest figures are even higher.

So, if you calculate that out, you can see that a single edit of the average decently self-edited fiction novel should range between $1000 and $2000. At least. If you’re getting a substantive or a particularly complicated type of edit (such as for a book with footnotes, index, graphs, and such), it can be even higher. By “single edit,” I don’t mean a single pass (read-through) but a complete edit by one person, which should include more than one pass over the manuscript, scanning for different types of problems. Ideally, after you’ve edited your manuscript as well as you can, you should employ a copy editor and then a separate person for proofreader. The more people who look at your manuscript, the more nits they will find and the cleaner your manuscript will be. Nits — like coat-hangers — they breeds in the dark, my precioussss ….

But you may ask, Why such a high starting hourly rate? Well, there are a few reasons. One is that editing is a skill. It’s a skill that requires experience and training, and it requires more experience and training to keep it sharp. It also requires that I set up my own office. So, you’re paying me for my skill and my experience and my tools, just as you would a plumber or a contractor to work on your house. In this case, your manuscript is your house.

Another is that editing is an intensive job. Most editors I talk to say they can edit up to four to six hours. Some can only do two. It’s hard on the eyes and hard on the brain. After a while, if you push it too much, everything starts to blur. Editing in a blur is no fun and doesn’t tend to produce good work.

For me, four is my usual limit. What do I do with the other hours? Quite a bit — answering emails and otherwise interacting with current clients (because working on your manuscript also means getting to know what you need), advertising, prospecting for new clients, blogging, research, and training to keep up and increase my skills. That can easily put my work day over eight hours, but those other hours often don’t make any direct revenue on their own. Some of them I even have to pay for. Yet they are essential to my business and my ability to make your book as good as I can.

A third is that if I’m earning a decent wage from your project, you have my full-time, undivided attention for that period of time. I don’t have to scramble to find other projects to fill in the blanks and pay the bills, especially if I get half from you up front. I can concentrate fully on your project because that’s what you’re paying me to do.

“Good” isn’t something on which I’m willing to compromise. If I don’t do the best I can manage within the parameters of the project each time, it will eventually affect my clients’ satisfaction and my business. Yes, there’s a difference between a proofread and a copy edit, but that difference is not one of quality. In addition, I’ve been an indie publishing editor for seven years and I throw in advice for free about where you can send your manuscript or how you can spin it for an editor.

That leaves “fast” and “cheap.” If you want it fast, well, it’s definitely not going to be cheap. But there are limits on both. To do a really good, thorough edit, depending on the manuscript, I will generally need two weeks to a month for a project of 100,000 words. And much less than $1,000 for that size of a project is therefore not going to be worth it for me. You can certainly find cheaper editors on the internet, but look at the above calculations and ask yourself what corners they have had to cut to make that model work for them.

Now, I understand that authors are not made of money, even those who budgeted for editing (which many make the mistake of not doing). I’m an author myself; it’s one reason why I like working with them. If your book is smaller, of course the fees will be less. A cleaner manuscript won’t require as much work as a rough one (though in my experience, authors often think their work is more finished and nit-free than it really is).

Not sure you want to work with me? Try a sample of up to 2000 words for $20. Need time to pay for the whole project? I can do the manuscript over time in installments. Not sure your manuscript is ready for prime-time editing or what you should be editing? I can do a pass over it and give you an evaluation for $40 per hour. Need British or Canadian English? I’ve done that. Need Australian English? I know someone I can recommend who can help you. Working on a thesis? I’ve done two — one at the Masters and one at the PhD level — and I’ve tutored a lot of people in English and essay writing. Have other languages in your manuscript? I have a degree in Classical Languages and a background in French and other Romance languages. I’ve even studied Old English.

And, of course, whatever changes I make (with tracking, unless you ask otherwise), you can always undo. It’s your book. I’m only helping you with it.

So, if you’re looking for a good editor, drop me a line, either here or at thesnowleopard(at)hotmail(dot)com.