In 1977 Stephen King published a novel entitled Rage under the pen name of Richard Bachman. In this novel a troubled high school student kills two teachers using a gun and then holds his class hostage. The gun-toting teen and his hostages end up bonding and talking about their lives and the secrets they have been hiding. The end result is a twisted version of what happens in a movie that was made 8 years later: the teen classic Breakfast Club. I think Rage is a brilliant work with regards to its social commentary. However, insofar as horror is concerned the novel is really not a big deal in a genre that figures all sorts of monsters, psychos, and grotesque occurrences. The problem with Rage is that it made the leap from the fictional into the real. Some actual and attempted school shootings during the 80s and 90s were linked back to the novel when it was discovered that the perpetrators had read it and could have been inspired by it. The author was so shocked by this that he asked his publisher to take the novel out of print. So let me get to the crux of this post. If you found that a book you wrote was inspiring acts of violence, would you remove the book from circulation? We can even take it a step back. Would you write something if you knew that there would be the chance some disturbed person somewhere would use it as an inspiration to harm others? Would you censor yourself? In my next book of short stories, Spirit Women, there are stories where murders are committed. Should I publish it? What if I give ideas to some disturbed person? Would I want that on my conscience? Do I have a social responsibility as a writer? Should I stick to writing the wholesome family stories that are featured in my book The Sun Zebra forever? One problem is that deranged people will be inspired by the craziest things to carry out or justify their acts. Charles Manson and his clan took inspiration from songs by the Beatles (most notably Helter Skelter) and from the book of Revelations in the Bible when carrying out their brutal murders in 1969. Timothy McVeigh made a reference to the reaction of audiences to the blowing of the Death Star in the movie Star Wars to justify the morality of his bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. A sick or troubled mind will twist anything to justify preconceived beliefs. However, the cases above are “abstract” whereas the specific subject matter of novels like Rage is more explicit and therefore more prone to produce copycat behavior. And I do admit that when it comes to kids and guns the issue is way too emotional for me to deal with, especially after the recent Sandy Hook shooting. To answer the questions I posed above, I think that if I had written Rage I would have done like Mr. King and yanked it from the shelves if I had found it could have inspired acts of violence. But would I have written it at all? The puzzling answer is yes. I would have written it and then hoped for the best. The reason behind my apparent contradiction is that I believe stories like Rage are nothing but mirrors. What they show us may not be pretty, but if these stories are censored we would never see our reflection. In the case of Rage that reflection was a society that was ignoring abuse by teachers, bullying by students, and domestic violence in the community. Challenging the status quo always produces conflict and occasionally has tragic consequences, but is censorship and business as usual the alternative? What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I wrote a post where I passed on to new authors the advice that the best way to begin writing is not to go for a novel, but rather to write short stories. Although I still believe this is sound advice, my experience selling my book of short stories The Sun Zebra and that of other authors requires that I bring up an important caveat to this advice that I briefly mentioned before. There is a bias against short stories. This bias has existed for a long time in the traditional publishing industry where the preferred work, especially for new authors, is the novel. You would guess that in the self-publishing world that would not be the case, but this unfortunately is not true. Many blogs and websites that feature books do not even have a category for short stories, and a few even state that they don’t feature short stories. Others don’t state it outright but clarify that they will not feature works under 50,000 words or so (which also excludes novellas). Some of this bias may come from the misguided notion that short stories are for beginning writers, whereas “real writers” are the ones who write novels. This is of course hogwash. Even though some writers do consider short stories to be a stepping stone for greater work, many of the greatest writers of all time have regarded the short story as a bona fide art form of its own. Among these you find Edgar Allen Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Updike, O. Henry, Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Washington Irving, H. P. Lovecraft, and many others. However, this notion still persists nowadays. The other reason for the bias is probably rooted in reader behavior. Readers may just feel better about becoming involved with a certain set of characters over the expanse of a longer work instead of having to repeat the process every 5,000 words or so as they would have to do with a diverse group of short stories. Readers also may crave the level of plot development and character definition that is only possible within the context of longer works. Therefore, as a new author, you will have a harder time selling short stories compared to novels. Also if the collection does not include a lot of stories you will probably sell them for a price below $2.99, which is the limit of the 70% royalty for Amazon (anything below that is 35% royalty). This will make it harder to recoup your investment on the book and on promotion. But even given the above caveat, I think that there is something that must be understood. Many stories are better told as short stories, or novellas, instead of as novels. I believe that if you find yourself asking “How can I add new characters, or more description, and other filler material to beef this story up to the 50,000 word mark of a novel?” you are going down the wrong track. Writing a novel is not like inflating a balloon. Unless you are a gifted writer or have tapped into a crowd of readers who don’t care, filler material is going to stick out like a sore thumb and your otherwise great short story or novella will be ruined by long, boring, senseless passages and/or superfluous characters. What do you think? Photo credit: Gflores / Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0 ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Marie Shelley probably did not know what she would get started 195 years ago when she published her novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Her tale of a man playing God and the nasty consequences captured the imagination of the public, and her work became a literary success that would later move into the realms of theater and then film and television almost as soon as these were invented. It was in the 1931 film, where the master of horror Boris Karloff played the monster, that the current view of what the monster looks like was cemented in the popular culture. Since then the vast majority of visual references to Frankenstein have those emblematic electrode bolts sticking out of the sides of his neck. There are two interrelated aspects to the cultural impact of this book that I find very interesting. One is that the name Frankenstein became synonymous with “monster,” although in the book the monster does not have this name or any name for that matter. Frankenstein is the name of its creator Victor Frankenstein. The second aspect is that the word “Frankenstein” has also come to mean a creation (work or entity) that breaks free from the control of its creator and acquires a life of its own sometimes bringing hardship or ruin upon the creator. In modern society there are many instances where both of these aspects of the Frankenstein ethos, either real or suggested, are bestowed upon the creation by preceding its name with the prefix “Franken.” When my daughter was in middle school she brought home a project from her ceramics class. It was a strange dark green shape with two knobs sticking out at right angles and what appeared to be stiches on its surface. I asked her what it was and she replied, “It’s a Frankenapple.” Environmentalist and consumer advocacy groups often refer to genetically modified foods as “Frankenfoods” and to genetically modified crops as “Frankencrops.” Related to this, a rumor got started back in 2000 that involved the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. When the franchise began calling itself “KFC” to reflect that it offered a wider variety of food choices, the rumor originated that they did this because they were not serving chicken anymore in their restaurants but a genetically modified organism that they could not legally call “chicken.” So what were they rumored to be serving? Frankenchicken.
In 2002 the invasive Asian snakehead fish made the news when several of them were found in a pond in Crofton, Maryland. Since then the snakehead has become established wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of the Potomac River and they have been dubbed "Frankenfish." Hollywood decided to commemorate this event by releasing an apropos movie.
Filmmaker extraordinaire Tim Burton brought to the screen a story about a boy named “Victor” who brings his dog “Sparky” back to life with a lot of unintended consequences in a short film in 1984 and again in an animated full-length film to be released this year. The name of the movie? Frankenweenie.
In a 1990 film a medical school dropout endeavors to reassemble his dead girlfriend using “parts” obtained from New York prostitutes. The result? Frankenhooker.
In the cartoon Spongebob there is a 2002 episode where a doodle acquires a life of its own and runs amok causing all sort of mischief. The name of the episode is, of course, “Frankendoodle.” The punk rock band The Dead Kennedys put out a record in 1985 called “Frankenchrist.” Inside the record sleeve they ill-fatedly included a poster by artist Hans Rudolf Giger entitled “Penis Landscape.” In a true Frankenstein-like fashion the resulting obscenity trial nearly drove the band’s record label out of business. A teacher wrote an article about an unsuccessful attempt to conduct a reading class employing e-books. The tittle of her article? Frankenbook. An interesting use of the prefix is found in the term "Frankenjob" which The Urban Dictionary defines as “a job consisting of a variety of different, often largely unrelated, tasks and duties, often resulting from corporate downsizing, restructuring or layoffs that cause many people's jobs to be combined into one.” Example: After all those layoffs, management gave Fred so many different people's work, he's got a real Frankenjob now. The above are just several examples of the use of the prefix “Franken” in our societies. Have you encountered, experienced, or created anything Franken-like? Please leave a comment and share your experience. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Maybe I am fortunate that the majority of the writing ideas that come to me are in the format of short stories. I think this is because I tend to have less patience for the longer works. If I can tell a story in 5,000 words I just find it very hard and tedious to expand this to 50,000. It’s just not in my nature. However, I have had a few ideas to write stories that would have easily grown into the writing length of what would classify as a novel (40,000 or more words). Nevertheless, as a beginning writer, when it comes to choosing whether to write novels or short stories, I have decided to take the advice of Ray Bradbury who, early in his career, used to say: I am a sprinter not a long-distance runner.A novel is a very risky enterprise for a new writer because of the length of time it takes to write one and the chance that it will not be good or sell well, whereas the short story format diminishes these risks. I may add to Bradbury's advice that this is especially true if you are a beginning writer who will self-publish his/her own work. If you are still learning the ropes and developing contacts, it is more prudent to reserve your more complex works for later on when you have the infrastructure and experience to support/promote them.
Unfortunately the current writing culture seems to be a novel-centric one. People who decide they want to be a writer tend to think in terms of writing a novel as though there weren’t other alternatives. Everyone talks about a writer’s debut novel, but you never hear anything about a writer’s debut book of short stories. Some websites that list the work of writers do not even have a category for short stories. My guess is that this is either because of reader demand (people like to read longer works with the same theme), or because the prevailing belief among writers is that what truly tests a writer’s mettle is a novel.
Be that as it may, I think that with a few exceptions most beginning writers (especially the ones that will self-publish) are better off setting more modest goals for their first efforts. I fear the current system is just pushing many authors who are not ready yet to invest a substantial amount of time and effort in putting out a novel, and many of these will crash and burn as a result of this. What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
This is funny but a good reminder of the toils and troubles awaiting you if you want to write a novel and how you shouldn't be naive about it. However, I think the characters in the video represent extreme positions.