Monthly Archives: March 2011

Which witch is which?

by Gail Z. Martin

While we’re on the subject of supernatural makeovers, I love what has happened with the witch/wiccan/clairvoyant theme.  If you’ve been following my posts on Shelfari, you’ll see that I’ve been reading quite a few series where there’s a strong female protagonist who is a witch/clairvoyant/medium/psychic-something.  It’s the new kick-ass female empowerment.

I think it’s interesting that, at least in the books I’ve read (and there are a lot I haven’t, so go easy on me if I’ve missed something), it’s always only the women who have the witch/clairvoyant/psychic powers.  The men are skeptical if not hostile, and sometimes threatened to the point of walking out on the relationship.  I’m betting there’s a psychological comment on our culture in there somewhere.

It’s also interesting that in pretty much all of the books (again, that I’ve read—which leaves lots out, I know), there’s always at least one good girlfriend who believes in the heroine’s unusual gifts and provides support and encouragement, as well as playing wingman for everything from breaking and entering to CYA on broken dates.  Supernatural powers as the ultimate female bonding glue!

I also enjoy seeing a wide range of psychic abilities presented in a way that is much more realistic (at least, according to my psychic friends).  Clairvoyance, precognition, channeling, astral projection and psychometry are just some of the gifts I’ve seen treated with respect and integrated into series in recent years.  Much better than just lumping everything together!

Interesting side note—judging from the books, psychic powers seem to go hand-in-hand with a love of shoes and/or a passion for vintage clothing.  Go figure!

The really great news is that according to Locus Magazine, there were 614 original fantasy novels published in 2010 from major publishers, and 384 paranormal romances, as well as 251 new horror titles.  Plenty to read!  Locus notes the trends for vampires, werewolves and zombies show no sign of ending.  Some off their favorite humorous titles: Eat, Prey Love, I Kissed a Zombie and I liked it, and my personal favorite, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer (if you don’t get it, hum the tune of Tiny Dancer).

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The Beginning and the Ending

by Crymsyn Hart 

Some writers find it hard to start a book. The first sentence or the first paragraph can even the worst thing to write. The author has so many wonderful ideas that you have to find just the right starting point. Do you jump into the middle of a scene? Do you start off with dialogue? Do you begin with describing the scene and setting up the reader to delve into the world of the characters that the writer has set up? Or sometimes it is the easier thing for the writer to delve directly into the first chapter and get into the thick of things.

For me, it is easier to jump right into the thick of things. I love that my characters are in the middle of something so the reader starts off with a bang. Of course I then go into the description of my characters and the scene and the story line that begins to unfold. But then again this also depends on how long the work I am going for is as well. If I’m writing something short, then diving head first is a good thing. If I am going for the longer work, then I set up the scene and keep on going. It all depends on the work.

Now it comes to the ending. Endings can go either way. They can be tied up in a neat little bow or they can leave a few loose ends to be extended into the next book of a series. However, I don’t seem to have a problem with the endings. Just sometimes the characters don’t want to end a book the way I want it to. In the romance genre, people expect there to be a happily ever after ending or at least a happy for now ending. Sometimes it’s hard to think of that kind of stretch, but that is what romance endings are for. For the reader to escape into a world and that the endings will be happy. Who wants the couples breaking up right at the very end when they have spent the whole book watching them get together?

Whether the beginning or the ending is the hardest for the writer to put down, it is the author who has to struggle through placing the words and hope that all ends or begins the way the author wants it to.

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Never Let Them See You Die


J. F. Lewis

Before getting too far into today’s blog, I wanted to mention that I have a free Void City short featuring Greta and Eric at the beach up today over at Pocket After Dark. Check it out over here and then come right back, because I wanted to talk about it. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you get back.

Back? Did you have fun? That Greta sure can eat, can’t she?

Pieces like that (it’s almost a vignette, but it goes beyond one scene) are fun for writers. We get to tell the reader a story that doesn’t exactly fit into the larger piece. Maybe it’s not exactly a deleted scene, but more a possible derailment of the narrative.

We’ve all read books where the author goes off on some wild (yet interesting) tangent that leaves us disconnected from the important events in the book when we come through the other side of it. You may have even caught yourself skimming back to refresh your memory before proceeding.

In the Void City series, it’s quite possible this scene (Greta’s vampiric transformation) might be told from Greta’s point of view eventually. She likes to reflect on memories and inflict them on others to see how they react, but I thought it unlikely we’d get it from Eric’s point of view. And there, like in Rashomon and movies using The Rashomon Effect (telling the same story multiple times through the eyes of different characters) is the fun bit. I think it’s interesting to note that Eric doesn’t realize Greta hasn’t eaten in three days (though we know that from one of her chapter’s in Crossed). Greta doesn’t likely understand how Eric truly felt about the situation either. More fascinating for me, is the idea that if I were to go back and rewrite the scene from the point of view of Marilyn or someone else on the beach, the story would be so different as to almost be unrecognizable.

John Gardner’s Grendel is one of my favorite books that does this, recounting the story of Beowulf from the point of view of the monster… though Gregory Maguire’s Wicked is likely more well known. Which brings me to a question, if you could pick, what story or stories would you like to see rewritten from another viewpoint? Which viewpoint?

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It Is Not What It Is

by Michael A. Arnzen –

I can’t quite put my finger on when I first noticed the rise of the popular expression, “It is what it is,” but I suspect it began circulating in American culture almost a decade ago, shortly after the fall of the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001. Sure, maybe it was already circulating in sports lingo and on military bases before then, but now I hear it all the time, whenever there is some kind of suffering, exhaustion, or tragedy at hand.

Lost your job due to the economy? It is what it is. Teenager out of control, experimenting with drugs and texting at the dining room table? It is what it is. Crazy unemployed man on the loose at the local playground with a shotgun, hunting down his drug-addled son? It is what it is.

The phrase is probably meant to summon our courage so we can deal with the reality of a situation. It means “get over it.” Accept the facts and move on.

But nothing is what it seems and I see this phrase as defeatist, not pragmatic. It is irresponsible at best, and censorious at worst.

As a fiction writer, especially a HORROR fiction writer, one of my essential aims to alert others to the fact that nothing is what it seems on the surface. Nothing “is” what we think it is at first glance. The truth is always “out there,” not present and accounted for. There is always something more than meets the eye, and often this “something more” is something we don’t usually want to face or confront. Horror writers show us things we don’t want to see; they remove the mask from the superficial versions of reality we often come to accept. Horror readers like to be reminded of this, and open themselves up to exploring the unknown and looking with morbid curiosity at the things they are told they shouldn’t or can’t know.

One of the greatest examples of this would be a shapeshifter or werewolf story. My favorite has to be John Carpenter’s version of “The Thing,” based on John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” [ ]. In this story, a shipwrecked ancient alien — essentially a mimic — is thawed out of the arctic ice near an isolated research camp. It takes the form of the last creature it devoured, and progressively devours the entire camp. We never really see the “thing” itself; the alien is unknowable. But we do see it in moments of horrifying transition, when characters catch it in the act of transformation from one being to another. These are always the coolest, and most grotesque, moments in a werewolf or shapeshifter story: the “turning” moment, when man is shown in a state of becoming something new.

It is what it is? No, it is always something else. Something either unknowable, or something different than what we expect. And something that changes. That change is scary. But it is responsible for the entire thrill.

One of my favorite horror writers, Robert Bloch (the man who created Norman Bates, in Psycho), once said that “horror is the removal of masks.” That’s become my defining phrase for the genre, and something I firmly believe that writers need to perform on the superficial skin of everyday “reality”. We tear of the mask to show “It is not what it is.”

If I didn’t see such things as my aim, I would write encyclopedia articles or laboratory reports and attempt to capture in words what things “are.” Or I would be a journalist, and tell stories that purport to chronicle events and say “and that’s the way it was” on such and such a date.

I do not mean to damn science and journalism. Objective science is responsible for raising our awareness for the way things are, but scientists never settle for things being “what they are.” They take what “it is” and unveil what ELSE it is, or what else they can do about it. They invent just like writers, sometimes. They cure things. If we said “cancer is what it is” we’d never try to find a cure.

And if we believed that journalists were solely reporting facts, we would only need one news station or newspaper, and we could consult it the way we do a common dictionary, as a guidebook to the truth, without question. Instead, clearly, there are multiple viewpoints at play in any event, and while good journalists report THOSE VIEWPOINTS, they can never entirely testify to have the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

We NEED fiction writers to indulge the imagination and consider all the alternatives, scary or not. The freedom of fiction to make things up provides society with viewpoints that science and journalism can never provide. Our aim is to show different ways of being/thinking/doing — alternatives to perceptions and common truths (if not common sense). The fiction writer’s motto is inherently that “there is always another way” of thinking/seeing/doing.

Some might argue that fiction is nonsense and tell me to get over it already, because it makes more sense to address real world problems and issues. But the more you think about it, the more the expression “it is what it is” is more nonsense than any fiction story. Stories follow a plot logic, and unfold meaning through drama. The expression “it is what it is” is illogical, and closes down meaning altogether. Let me explain.

First off, the phrase “it is” is an empty set. What is “it”? Anything. Let’s call it X. What is “is”? Being and existence. The weakest and most generalizing verb in the universe. Thus “it is what it is” turns the potent question “What?” into nothing more than an equal sign. It is what it is. X = X.

Such algebraic thinking is unquestionable, but when language and ideas enter the picture, it becomes a claim, a point of view. Logicians call such a way of thinking a “tautology” — a false argument, fallacious because it draws no conclusion from its premise. It circles back on itself, presenting the premise as if it were the conclusion. It is not only an “empty” set, but a “closed” one. Thus, it has the suggestion that the idea is inarguable, when in fact it is actually illogical and simply seeks to close down further discussion and thought. It answer the potent question “Why?” with the answer “just because.” Why is X that way? Just because it is.

It asks us to give up. To stop thinking, and to give up considering alternatives to the status quo. To accept the given “reality” and not to question where that version of reality came from. It is a claim to authority over the truth. When I hear “it is what it is” I hear the echo of a parent, saying “Why? Because I said so, that’s why.”

Now, sure, sometimes things really are what they are, but whenever someone feels the need to say so, I wonder: What are you afraid of here? How do I know you are seeing the same “it” that I am? What qualifies you to be the person who stops this discussion? And what ultimately happens when I accept your definition of what “it is”?

Declaring “it is what it is” seeks to deaden. To put an end to inquiry. To control a problem through a shrug.

But things always change, and I say it is better to treat the statement as a transition. To reply, “Okay, so now what?” or “Why is it that way?” To recover the power of those questions, what and why. That’s the only way to transform a situation from “it is what it is” to “it is what it was and now it’s something else.” Hopefully, something better.

But as The Thing teaches us, it is not always so hopeful. Sometimes “it is” something worse, far worse, than we ever imagined. That’s the fun part of horror and fantasy writing. Stories from these genres are sometimes called “cautionary” tales, because they warn us not to, say, go into the woods alone…but they also prick our curiosity about what else might be out there. They encourage our wonder, while reaffirming our fears. If “it is” worse than what we think “it is,” I would want to know that, not put my head in the sand. Because when your head is in the sand, it only makes it easier for the reaper to change his golf swing. Horror fiction reminds us to keep looking, even if we don’t want to, even when we’re told we shouldn’t. And maybe it encourages us to have a little fun dodging the scythe.

Horror fiction not only destroys the “it is what it is” tautology, it also shows us that “it is what it is not.” That things are sometimes so alien and Other that they are the exact opposite of what we believe them to be. They are UNdead, UNknown, UNreasonable, UNcanny. This is not mere opposition. It is more like “contrarianism”: it challenges us to distrust what is given to us as the Truth with a capital T. This is also why horror is discredited and denounced by those who see the entire genre as something threatening. They treat it as childish or whimsical nonsense and nothing more. Because those Truthmakers have something to lose in the questions that such a worldview raises. But there is as much truth in nonsense as there is nonsense in truth. And fiction, especially fiction of the fantastic, is a powerful reminder of this.

I read speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy, horror — because I want to know what else “it” could be. I write horror fiction to ask that very same question.

So go ahead: tell me that it is what it is. All you’re doing is giving me ideas for more stories, so I can show you just how wrong you really are.

Michael A. Arnzen is a college teacher by day and a horror writer by night. He has been educating novelists since 1999 as faculty in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, PA, where he is currently Chair of the Humanities.  His often funny, always disturbing horror stories have won four Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild award, and several “Year’s Best” accolades. His latest book of short fiction, Proverbs for Monsters, collects the best of his writing over the past twenty years.  A new “how to” book he co-edited, for writers of all genres, called Many Genres, One Craft: Lessons in Writing Popular Fiction, will be published this Spring from Headline Books.

He invites you to subscribe to his creative newsletter, The Goreletter, at

As a special deal to readers of this blog, Mike Arnzen is offering signed copies of his crazy music-enhanced storytelling CD, Audiovile, for just $5 ppd! To get a sense of what it is like, visit this link for a new single (not on the CD) called “Attack of the Bleu Man Group” at:

To get the special discount you need to order via paypal to and mention the phrase “GAILZ” when you provide your information.

You can listen to the audio from when Michael was a guest of Blog Host, Gail Z. Martin’s Ghost in the Machine podcast here:

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Paranormally Speaking

By Tina R. McSwain

Spirit Rescue

What is a spirit rescue?  Well, it is exactly what it sounds like.  Helping the spirit to move on to its next plane of existence.  Finding the lost souls and releasing the trapped ones.

There are individuals who have the knowledge, experience and skills to rescue a spirit.  This means that these people actually assist a spirit to move on using a variety of methods and techniques unique to that individual.  This practice also offers a sense of comfort and relief to the home or business owner who has an unwelcome guest in their midst as well.

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Spirit Rescue

By Tina R. McSwain

What is a spirit rescue?  Well, it is exactly what it sounds like.  Helping the spirit to move on to its next plane of existence.  Finding the lost souls and releasing the trapped ones.

There are individuals who have the knowledge, experience and skills to rescue a spirit.  This means that these people actually assist a spirit to move on using a variety of methods and techniques unique to that individual.  This practice also offers a sense of comfort and relief to the home or business owner who has an unwelcome guest in their midst as well.

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Freebie Friday: Charles Gannon

Our guest blogger this week, Charles Gannon was kind enough to share the following poem with us:

The Charge of the Flight Brigade – removed from Charles’ forthcoming Baen novel.

The Charge of the Flight Brigade final to download.

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Whither the Werewolf?

by Gail Z. Martin

Werewolves are the new hot, hairy heartthrobs.  Whether it’s Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series or the uber-handsome werewolves in MaryJanice Davidson’s Queen Betsy books, or Quentin in Dark Shadows, or even the tragic Remus Lupin in Harry Potter, werewolves are the bad boys you can’t help but love.

In many ways, the werewolf has always depicted the brutal side of male behavior. And the truth is, there’s nothing sexy about domestic violence.  (Read Tanith Lee’s take on the Little Red Riding Hood story in Red as Blood to turn this trope on its head.) Yet today’s werewolves manage to soften that brutality by focusing their aggression outwards against threats to the mate, rather than internally against their family.

So here’s my question—how domesticated can we make werewolves before they become puppy dogs?  Are we reflecting a desire to find a wolf—or a golden retriever?  And if the wolf is a little too scary, is a German shepherd or a pit bull good enough?

Don’t get me wrong—I think there’s room for people to want a broad spectrum of werewolves, from alpha males to Yorkies (well, maybe that’s going a little far).  And perhaps it’s no different than the trend to shift a vampire from being a monster to being a ultimate-warrior male who is tender at home and rips heads off out in the street (it’s business, not personal).

Yet in many ways, werewolves are traditionally more duel natured than vampires, because vampires never cease being undead, while werewolves are just like the rest of us except around the full moon.  I’ve always thought that real violence is more a part of the werewolf mythos than the vampire trope because a vampire can take blood without killing, and even provide an orgasm for the donor.  Getting gnawed on by a wolf, on the other hand, is more of a downer.

Is there a point to this rambling?  Probably not.  Just some random observations and a few unanswered questions.  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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The Dreaded Blurb

by Crymsyn Hart

How do you know what a book is about?

You read the book jacket or the back cover. Or if you’re perusing the website of a publisher or a bookseller, then you read the narrative of the book on the page. It has to be brief to describe the nature of the book, but it has to be witty enough to draw the potential reader in. It can’t reveal too much about the plot, but you have to give just the right amount of balance to make it sound intriguing. All within a certain amount of words or space. It’s a writer’s nightmare. Well, at least one of my nightmares anyway.

Yes, the dreaded blurb. How do I count the ways of how much I despise writing you? I think I’d prefer someone shoving wooden splinters underneath my fingernails. Or better yet pulling out my teeth with a rusty wrench. I cringe every time I have to write the 100-150 word description of a novel. Sure, I can agonize over it for days. Sometimes even lose some sleep over it, but in the end, I finally think of the words that I think give a good balance for the theme and the characters.

After all the books that my muses have helped me create, I hate to think of what I need to write. How much do you talk about the hero? How much to put down about the heroine? Will the reader get what the book is about even with the blurb? These are all things that run through my head. And then, after you’ve written the dreaded blurb, the publisher decides it wasn’t good enough ad changes it on you.

If this can help sell books then great, but don’t they know how hard I worked on the description? It hasn’t happened to me more than a couple of times, but it was a little surprising. Although, in the end the blurb was a mixture of mine and theirs. It was okay.

I’ve gotten some great advice from other authors on how to write blurbs. Over the years, mine have gotten tighter and shorter. I wouldn’t say I’m a professional now, but I’ve overcome numerous hurtles. So anyone that has to write a blurb, I wish you luck. Make is sexy. Make it intriguing. Make it brief with that hook that will help you catch many a reader.

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The iPad Report


J. F. Lewis

A year ago (or more) my desktop PC died. When it did, I realized that I didn’t really need one anymore. I wrote mostly on my laptop and used the PC mainly as a synch station for my iPod and long term email storage. When it died, I already had all of my writing files backed up to the laptop. No worries.

In the intervening period, I picked up an iPad, largely because I hoped it would served as a portable writing solution. The battery life was far better than my laptop. It was lighter, easier to get out and type on while waiting in line or walking around, and though I still needed to use my laptop to review edited versions of my novels and to synch my iPad, the only things I actually tended to write on it were blog posts. Blog posts which sort of vanished into the ether when it died.

Previously, the death of a computer would have caused a huge surge of activity, running about checking floppies… or in later incarnations CD-ROMs, then DVD-ROMs, but in the new era of technology in which I find myself, it involved a sigh. Then I checked my Dropbox to make sure it had the most recent versions of everything and went about the business of trying to keep up my daily word count so that I can turn in the fourth Void City book on time.

What does this have to do with advice for aspiring writers, you may ask?


Don’t lose your work. Dropbox is what I use (you get 2 gigs of storage for free and that is plenty of room for a directory filled with mostly documents… and if you want a referral link there ya go.), but it’s not the only one out there. Just use something. Do not lose your work. I understand that may sound strange coming from a writer who used to delete his own novels, but it’s still sound advice.

So… because of Dropbox, all I lost were emails and some blog posts. What’s the worst data loss you’ve experienced?

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