You’re weird – a guest post by JH Mae

“You’re weird.”

That phrase has been directed at me a few times. I’m not sure what people intend when they accuse me of it, but I know it’s not often a compliment. “Weird” is one those murky distinctions – you can’t really say what it is, but you know it when you see it.

For instance …

When I was in college I took a life-drawing class. One of our models was this spindly, dark-haired fellow who, before he disrobed, I recognized instantly as the guy who walked around campus wearing a top hat and a cape.

He was weird. But that’s not a bad thing.

If I know anything about weirdoes it’s that we’re necessary. As uncomfortable as we make the world with our collection of antique medical instruments, or our library of biographies on serial killers, or our closet full of Marvel costumes, the world needs our off-beat way of thinking.

It needs people who don’t see the world in the same colors as everyone else.

My stories have been called weird. No matter what the topic, something is always … off. I have one about a Broadway actor turned zombie who’s auditioning for a post-apocalyptic theater company before his body completely decomposes. And another about a woman who learns she was a psychotic murderer in a past life. Then there’s a love story between a morgue attendant and a vampire that explores the purpose of love and death.

There are plenty of standard, cookie-cutter, five-minute stories I could write. But I’d be so bored. And if the world was filled with the same dry toast ideas, we’d all be terribly bored.

The world needs weirdoes –Salvador Dalis, Terry Gilliams, and Stephen Kings– simply because of how different we see things. We aren’t afraid of darkness, we like to twist the normal until it’s unrecognizable, we see the potential for magic and wonder in a humdrum world.

In everyday life, dragons, zombies and magic assassins aren’t real – but they are in Game of Thrones thanks to George R.R. Martin’s weird imagination. Who would’ve thought to combine mummies, outer space and the Orient Express? One of the weirdoes who writes for “Doctor Who.” And those horror movies you love so much? Written by people who ask frightening questions – like what would happen if we could express our darker natures by torturing people in a creepy, clandestine hostel?

When weird people search their minds for ideas, they open up doors to unexplored places. Places people blessed with “normal” minds – ones that don’t automatically turn down twisted alleyways – can explore safely. Weirdoes create worlds that are wondrous, unnerving and innovative, all at the same time, and bring spontaneity, variety and fun to life.

I’ll close with another story, about a young woman I know who also goes a bit off script. One day, she was walking down the street and came upon a stranger who was inside a store, washing the windows. She stood outside and watched the stranger for a while, then put up her hand and followed the stranger’s hand like a mirror image. And then she left, without even saying “hello.”

Only a weirdo would do that. And I like the way she thinks.


* * *

Thanks to fellow writer JH Mae for today’s guest post. JH is a reader, writer and maker of pizza from Northern New York. You can check out her blog and links to her stories here. I particularly like her post on how to stay sane while working at home. Since reading it I have been giving myself verbal abuse and setting unreasonable deadlines for my Batman toy – it helps remind me of what I don’t miss.

The Dark Tower: The Waste Lands by Stephen King

I enjoyed the first book in Stephen King’s Dark Tower fantasy series, with its broken narrative and its intriguing ideas. I loved the second volume, with its intense study of a small group of characters, their personal struggles and their developing relationships. So I was really looking forward to the third volume.

Unusual setting, decent story

This story, which follows the Gunslinger Roland and his companions on the way to the Dark Tower, is very much a quest story. More coherent than the first volume, and a more conventional fantasy narrative than the second, the most interesting aspects lie in the details of the world. The characters take a familiar journey from A to B through various dangers, but the details of the world are unusual. It’s a mishmash of fantasy, science fiction, western and modern settings, with some horror elements in the mix.

More conventional makes for less interesting

The problem for me lies in the expectation set by the previous two volumes. By comparison with the intense character studies of the The Drawing of the Three, the familiar quest narrative is just OK. Like Robert Kirkman’s Walking Dead comics, this is combining familiar and comfortable structures with more unusual elements, but in a way that doesn’t excite me.

If this had been the first volume I probably would have been excited by the novelty of the setting, and let the quest story carry me through that. But as a third volume it felt disappointing.

The awesome bits

I still enjoyed this novel a lot. It may not be great, but it is good.

And King’s ambition here is great. Like the new weird, this combines elements in unexpected ways. Questions are raised about the relationship between the real world and that of the Gunslinger, a relationship which is complex and currently unresolved. We see how people respond when their world falls apart. The disparate genre elements unsettle and excite, promising exhilarating new experiences that they come within a hair’s breadth of delivering.

I read a blog post yesterday in which Jacqui Murray identified an optimistic view of the future as a feature of steampunk. While I’m not sure that optimism is essential to steampunk it is a common feature, a way of making the problems of Victorian society comfortable, shunning the darkness of colonialism and factory labour in favour of bold excitement. Steampunk can explore darker places, and can become more interesting by doing so, but it’s a more risky approach, and so less common.

In the same way, it feels like King has taken the safe route with this volume, and in doing so created something I enjoyed but wasn’t blown away by. I’m hoping for more next time.

Anybody else read this book? What did you think?

Addiction, loss and division – internal conflicts in The Drawing of the Three

Whether or not you think that characters are defined by their conflicts, those conflicts are clearly important to telling a good story. Internal conflicts and struggles make characters more interesting, and make it more difficult for them to face their external conflicts, adding to the tension in a good plot.

Stephen King’s The Drawing of the Three, which I talked about in general terms yesterday, is a great example of this, and of how to create these conflicts in different ways.

Dark Tower 2a

Physical challenges – Roland’s fingers

Roland, the protagonist of the book, is a gunslinger. His skill set, his confidence, even his sense of identity is built around that role. And straight away, within a few pages of the start of the book, his gunslinging ability is impaired when a lobster monster hacks off two fingers from his right hand.

Suddenly Roland is in conflict with his own body and his own instincts. He has to learn to function without wielding a gun in that hand, to re-make the habits and ways of behaving that keep him alive. King has inverted a common trope of both fantasy and westerns, where the hero shrugs off and forgets serious wounds, and instead made his hero’s struggle with his own body a major plot point.

Challenges of will – Eddie’s addiction

Eddie, the first of the three characters Roland draws to him, is an addict. His drug habit defines his whole life – his friends, his enemies, the trouble he’s in as we first meet him and the far greater trouble he gets into later on. But this is about more than providing external threats, it’s about defining Eddie’s internal conflicts.

King provides a compelling picture of a man facing that addiction. Eddie wants to be free of the drugs, yet at the same time he doesn’t. It’s a conflict that highlights the complexity of human will. Not all of our conflicts are as straightforward as wanting something and striving to make it happen. Desire is complex, willpower can be hard to muster, and that battle for will is Eddie’s conflict. It makes it hard for him to achieve what he needs to at times. It breaks both his body and his mind. But it also allows us to see Eddie’s strength, the battle showing that he might have the will to get through this, and through the other challenges on the way to the Dark Tower.

Odetta and Detta – extreme internal conflict

Then there’s Odetta and Detta, two personalities inhabiting the same body, both in denial about the other’s existence. It’s like King has taken the idea of internal conflict and pushed it to the greatest extreme he can think of. The two personalities are so distinct it almost becomes an external conflict, as we wait to see whether Odetta can fight off her dark self and retain not only control of her own body but continuing existence within her own mind.

The whole spread

King shows us a wide range of internal conflict in The Drawing of the Three. Each character faces a different sort of major conflict, and lesser struggles deriving from that. These conflicts are externalised through the character’s actions, not just dealt with through paragraphs of inner monologue. They make everything else more difficult and more interesting.

If you’re thinking about how to write internal conflict and so make interesting characters then I really recommend reading this book. And if you’re reading it already then keep an eye out for internal conflict, both as a writerly tool on display and as a theme of the story.

Enough from me. If you’ve read the book what did you think of its exploration of these characters? And even if you haven’t, what other great internal character conflicts can you think of?

The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King

I’ve never read Stephen King’s horror books. It’s not that I have an aversion to horror – I’ve enjoyed quite a few horror films and short stories – I’ve just never been interested enough to read a whole novel. So while King is widely regarded as a literary master craftsman, most of his work has passed me by.

So it’s a good thing he likes cowboys, because few things pique my curiosity more than cowboys appearing in genre fiction.

Dark Tower 2

Smooth prose

The Drawing of the Three is the second of King’s Dark Tower series and, not coincidentally, the second of them that I’ve read. It’s the continuing story of the gunslinger Roland, cast adrift in a world that in strange to the reader and increasingly distant from Roland’s own familiar life. He’s a man on a mission, though what that mission is remains elusive, and to fulfil that mission he has to reach the Dark Tower. But first he has to ‘draw the three’, bringing allies to him from our world.

At least they might be allies. And it’s probably our world. And meanwhile there are hideous lobster monsters prowling the beach, looking to make a lunch out of Roland.

As with the first volume, there’s a smoothness of prose on display here that’s very pleasing on the mind. While King summons up powerful images he doesn’t do so through reaching for the thesaurus or trying to impress us all with wacky metaphors. It’s the details of place, of character, of action, that make this story come alive.

Hooray for coherence!

The Gunslinger, King’s first Dark Tower novel, showed its origins as a series of short stories. It was disjointed in places, both in story and tone, held together by the thin thread of Roland’s pursuit of the Man in Black.

This is a far more coherent whole, clearly written as a single piece. Structure, characterisation, foreshadowing, it’s all that bit more connected. That, along with King’s smooth prose, kept me completely engaged in a story that goes in some weird directions.

The characterisation helps. The three people Roland draws to him aren’t empty plot vessels. They all face interesting personal challenges and are fascinating characters from diverse backgrounds – more on that tomorrow.

Expanding the range of fantasy

I’ve written elsewhere about the stodgy repetitiveness that sometimes overtakes fantasy. But The Dark Tower, a series that has been slowly growing for decades, is a reminder that there have always been innovations with the genre. That for all the snobbery we sometimes face, and the familiar tropes we sometimes trap ourselves in, there have always been writers who will say ‘I don’t want elves and orcs, I want a cowboy, a schizophrenic, giant lobsters and portals into people’s minds’. The new weird isn’t all that new. It’s right here in a novel from 1987.

I think this is a great book. Tomorrow I’m going to get a bit more analytical and explore one of the things it does particularly well – internal conflicts. In the meantime, here’s some listening to go with your Dark Tower reading – music inspired by and composed to accompany the first book, because when work in one medium inspires an artist in another that’s pretty cool.

Have you read this book, or others in the series? What did you think?

A hat like that – genre mashing westerns

 “Man walks down the street in a hat like that, you know he’s not afraid of anything … ” – Mal, Firefly

Straight up westerns aren’t all that popular these days. Despite the success of the magnificently dark Deadwood and Hell on Wheels there are very few on television, and even fewer in the cinema. Yet in sf+f we’re seeing western elements find their own growing niche. Not since Clint Eastwood sang his way through Paint Your Wagon have western mash-ups been so popular.



Science fiction westerns

It all seems to have started with the science fiction westerns. Star Trek was famously sold as Wagon Train in space, and while it may not have had many western trappings it certainly dealt with many of the key themes – wild frontiers; manly men in the rugged outdoors; civilisation transformed in the face of the other.

More recently Joss Whedon put the western elements front and centre in Firefly, possibly the most mourned show ever to face early cancellation. Again he explored themes of civilisation and borderland living, along with outlaws and the lingering divisions that follow civil war. But this time there were cowboys, shootouts and even a train robbery – yeehaw!

Steampunk westerns

In many ways steampunk’s a great fit with westerns. You’ve got the nineteenth century technology, outfits and attitudes. You’ve got frontier living again, combining technological and geographical frontiers. You’ve got dreams of a greater future twisted round with dark consequences. OK, so all of this was pre-empted by Wild Wild West, but now that steampunk’s properly emerged as a genre you can see the two being combined to good effect. That’s why the likes of Josh Stanton are scribbling away at steampunk westerns. Even I’ve had some success in that area.

Fantasy westerns

Now we’re seeing fantasy influenced by westerns as well. Of course Stephen King’s Dark Tower has been kicking around for a while, and is something of a favourite work for King himself. But Joe Abercrombie‘s also done it with Red Country, stripping away the technology of the western but keeping its tension and drama, from the grand conflicts between settlers and governments back home to the intimate brutality of the pre-shoot-out stand-off. It’s the social side of the old west, the behaviours and the social structures, rather than the technology and fashion, and it’s utterly compelling.

Back to the beginning

It’s great to see all these mashups. I love westerns and I love to see them combined with other genres in this way. It’s why I’ve written things like A Sheriff In The Deep and The Cast Iron Kid. But you can still never go wrong by going back to the classics. So if you’ve enjoyed any of the stories I’ve mentioned above then do yourself a favour and go watch some Clint Eastwood too. Pick up Pale Rider or The Outlaw Josey Wales. They’re exciting, evocative films, and worth every moment.


Simple words striking images – learning from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger

‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.’

Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons
Picture by Kenneth Lu via Flickr creative commons

I’ve noticed recently that a lot of what I’m taking from books, what I’m noticing and learning from, is about structure rather than writing style. For better or for worse The Gunslinger, the first of Stephen King’s Dark Tower books has forced me to change focus.

A string of pearls

Structurally, The Gunslinger is a series of separate incidents as we follow the protagonist across a desolate American west that seems to be part fantasy part post-apocalyptic wasteland. The parts of the book, originally published as separate short stories, sit together like pearls on a necklace – pieces that work well together but are distinctly separate.

The setting is reminiscent of that structure. That are a lot of distinct pieces here – the western atmospherics, the falshbacks to a feudal palace, the visions at a mountainside shrine. They’re all individually fascinating, but they don’t quite mesh into a coherent whole. This isn’t a problem – reality itself is neither coherent nor thematically clear – but it makes it hard to think and talk about King’s world building.

Plain English

So that leaves the prose.

This is only the second Stephen King book that I’ve read, and the first piece of fiction. As I’ve not been thinking much about writing style it’s hard for me to analyse it, but it’s undoubtedly one of the strengths of the book. What King seems to do – and I’m hoping I’ll refine this thought while reading the second volume – is to use simple words to create complex images. There’s plenty of description and evocation of characters’ internal states, but a lot of it’s done using straightforward language and short words. There’s no sign of excessive time spent with a thesaurus. It helps the story to flow.

Just look at that quote at the top of the page, the first line of the novel. It’s simple, clear and intriguing. It tells you a lot about what’s going on using only a dozen words, mostly one and two syllable. It evokes and intrigues. That’s good writing.

Learning to learn

I suppose the main lesson that I’ve learned from this one is that I don’t know how to properly analyse writing style, and I could benefit from working on that. But I’ve also been reminded that simple is often good, a lesson we easily forget.

Have you read The Gunslinger, or others of King’s works? What did you think? How would you describe his prose?

More ‘On Writing’

So, ‘next time‘ was longer coming than I meant it to be. My intentions are still way ahead of my attention span. But while It’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to cover the other good thing about Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’, and that’s the biographical material.

The first part of the book is a series of autobiographical anecdotes revolving around King’s writing, from the moments that first inspired him to craft fiction, through his early publishing career, to his life as a professional writer. Apparently unrelated incidents add colour and help understand his motives and emotional state at each point.

Some of it is very dark stuff, in particular his experience of alcoholism and the accident that nearly killed him in the late 1990s. But it’s also inspiring. It shows how he kept motivated, kept passionate, kept going.

Above all it’s wonderfully written. King has an eye for detail, for picking out the little touches that make an experience come alive for the reader. He balances the joyful and the melancholy, recognising that the two coexist not just in life but in each moment, and that demonstrating this makes for a more believable narrative. In short, he writes his non-fiction like good fiction, with himself as a very convincing character.

You’ll probably learn as much about how to write from the examples in this first part of the book as  from the ‘how to’ section. And if you’re not interested in that, then this is the part that’ll make the book worth reading. Because it really is.

On ‘On Writing’

I’ve just read Stephen King’s on writing. It’s one of the books that I’ve heard cited most often by other authors, so I went into it with a mixture of curiosity and high expectations. I really  enjoyed it, but it wasn’t what I expected.

Most of the books I’ve read on writing are straight up ‘how to’ guides. On Writing is a little different. The majority of it is dedicated to writing as a craft, how to go about it, how to live the writer’s life. But it isn’t presented like those other books, broken down into bullet points and exercises. Instead, it’s a narrative whole. There are useful things to learn, but you can’t easily flip through to a tool for characterisation when that’s what you need.

It’s also presented in a more personal manner. King’s authorial voice  is strong, his life and opinions presented for what they are, not as the objective certainties of most ‘how to’ books. This subjective approach to writing had the ironic effect of undermining the apparent objectivity of other books on writing, reminding me that these are just what works for that writer. No matter how good a guide is, you’re unlikely to ever find one where every word of advice works perfectly for you.

This point was hammered home for me by an interview I listened to with Luke Burrage of the science fiction book review podcast. He wisely pointed out that advice on writing from any given author is advice on how to write like that author. This leads to the conclusion that if you don’t like an author’s writing then you probably shouldn’t follow their advice.

It seems appropriate that I’m not accepting Burrage’s advice whole either. Just because an author doesn’t write my sort of fiction doesn’t mean I might not learn something from her methods. But it’s making me think harder about what advice to follow, when, and why.

Which brings me full circle. Some of the advice in On Writing is useful for me. But what really moved me, what I thought made his book so worth reading, was the other part of it. And I’ll come to that next time.