How dark is too dark?

So, maybe you’re a teenager or twenty-something, goth or just likes to wear black, thinks deep thoughts about death and realizes your life is going nowhere even though it’s just begun.

You might be a thirty to forty-year old, well established, married, homeowner, good to decent job with benefits, flashing back to your youth and realizing you didn’t get as wild as you wanted to before all this normalcy set in.

You could be fifty plus, grandparent or simply elder statesman, looked upon with a kind of reverence only because the young people you encounter don’t usually deal directly with someone your age and they somehow seem appealing to you.

Everyone has dark thoughts but manages to suppress it. Those who don’t are arrested. In truth, they are a small minority. Then, there is the writer of dark or transgressive fiction. That would be me. Some of the stuff I think of and consider initially make me go “Wow! I don’t think I should write THAT!” Immediately after that, there is an article on Yahoo! or on t.v., something that really happened, somewhere in the world, the U.S., your own state, your own neighborhood. And you say “Wow! What I’ve just thought of is nothing compared to the real world.”

I’ve read some dark fiction that seems to be trying to shock, going to an extreme to see if it can fit in with a reader’s sensibilities long enough to whack them over the head. That kind of writing reminds me of cheap B horror movies anywhere from the late 50’s to the mid 70’s. They are no better off than cheap porn, offering no substance and riding the coattails of shock only.

What I find the most tantalizing and scary are tales of the real world, real people, who react against the grain of the normalcy they project. Underneath, the maggots are already eating away at their soul and they won’t stop until everyone around them feels their suffering.

Manson is boring. He looks like a psycho and acts like one. Dahmer is fascinating. The boy-next-door with the angelic face and the dark desires. Rader is interesting because the president of a church is not supposed to have desires to Bind, Torture, and Kill. Too many people lump all these killers into one dark bunch, as though the act itself is what creates the darkness.

To me, it is the attempt at hiding it and covering it up that is darker. It is not the cheap porn of Helter Skelter. It is the darkness within that blinds our eyes when it is eventually revealed.

Notes on a Writer’s Conference – OWFI 2015

This was my fourth year attending and was, for me, the best ever. One of the primary reasons was due to the fact that there were more faculty and speakers who dealt with crime/thriller/transgressive/dark fiction genres, thereby making it more relevant for me.

Tops on the hit parade was Les Edgerton, the keynote speaker. Look up his bio on Wikipedia and that only scratches the surface. Les doesn’t have a filter, hates political correctness, has a wise-ass sense of humor and an absolute passion for the craft of writing. That kicks it into high gear beyond anything else. He graced our table at the Saturday night banquet. Trust me; that was an honor.

Richard Thomas is the editor in chief of Dark House Press and has proven that transgressive and dark fiction still has a place in publishing. He was self-effacing, personable, and accessible. I pitched my fully realized novel “Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing” (which I have commented on in this venue before). We’ll see where that goes (he said with painfully crossed fingers).

Andrew E. Kaufman doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would write “Twisted” or other psychological thrillers. But, again, the passion for the craft drives him and has brought him an incredible amount of success.

I am fully convinced that all you need to fully understand the intricate details of the police procedural is to consult with Lee Lofland. Everything about the sessions with this former police detective was filled with the most significant information to bring your story alive. Again, another interesting speaker with a unique sense of humor.

You have to consider all the sidebar events, gatherings, buzz sessions, pitch sessions, drinks at the bar, after-banquet jam sessions and impromptu conversations. I am convinced that the Embassy Suites in Oklahoma City is never as alive as it is when OWFI invades.

I’ve mentioned people. But this conference also instills hope and motivation. It provides not only the tools but the confidence to proceed in this journey of creativity. When Sunday rolled around and people were leaving with their suitcases, I knew it was all over. Whereas I would have preferred to stay and live in that hotel until next year, I knew that “real life” was beckoning. Part of that “real life” includes writing.

It wasn’t a dream. And the adventure continues.

I’m back! (Kinda. Sorta. Almost.)

When my mother passed away last year, it was one day before the OWFI Conference. Certainly, it was difficult, but there was no other option but to go and it is what my mother would have wanted. She and my late father always supported and promoted my writing. Creativity has long been a part of my family.

Over the course of the next several months, there were the legalities to go through involving the sale of her house. This was to be a long distance venture: the house was in Florida and I’m in Kansas. I chose who I thought was a reputable title company and went through an excruciating process based on my inability to make calls from work and time zone differences. There is far more to this part of the story but the details are not the issue. The bottom line is an unnecessary amount of stress was placed upon me by people who were far less than professional.

Then came the holidays.

In the meantime, I had to take a hiatus from my critique group. What started as temporary seems permanent. I had to recuse myself from attending meetings of the writer’s support group which I started. I pulled back and into a shell. The last quarter of the year I didn’t do a single bit of writing. I did some editing on a work in progress once or twice. In essence, I disappeared as a writer and, in so doing, lost my identity.

Well, the holidays have passed, my New England Patriots have won the Super Bowl, and I’m ready to start up again. I have to; there is no other choice. The alternative is to wind up like Amos Hart from “Chicago” (i.e. Mr. Cellophane). Life is too short to be occupied solely with the mundane and trivial. As writers, we create and bring to life the widest possibilities that exist around us. It is a feeling which I need to have again.

I will be doing a final draft on my Transgressive fiction piece, expanding it and making it even wilder than it is. I will be working on a second draft of the Meta-fiction, trying to expound on the notion of the Writer vs. the Writing. I will be picking up where I left off on my historical crime fiction.

Now, notice how I said “will be.” There are still a few plates that need to be cleared from the table, a better organization of my time, and a renewed dedication. So, I’m back, just not all the way yet.

How Pitchapalooza Led to a Book Deal

Pitchapalooza is a strange and unique event. Hosted by The Book Doctors, it offers the participants the opportunity for a one minute pitch. No more, no less, than one minute. After you have made your pitch, you are critiqued on it with the aim to help you make your pitch better. The winner gets a future meeting with an agent or publisher or editor uniquely qualified to assist.

You never know what it will lead to. This is my story.

SPOILER ALERT: I did NOT win.

It was at the KWA Scene Conference in 2012 that I participated. On this blog, I debated which of two pieces to pitch: a traditional neo-noir hardboiled mystery or an experimental piece of Transgressive fiction. I chose the latter. It was unique enough to stand out even though it might not be the most commercial piece to pitch.

I had looked up Pitchapalooza on YouTube and saw several examples. I wrote and re-wrote my pitch. I practiced. At the Friday night session, the twenty entrants were randomly drawn. I was confident going in. But as the participants came and went, I waited. And waited. And waited. Nerves were starting to settle in.

And then I was called. And, to be honest, I nailed it. I hit it out of the park. Pick your own analogy. But I did what I was supposed to do. I was ready for that cash bar.

At the end of the session, the five panelists excused themselves for a review/vote/consultation. They came back a short time later to announce that they had a winner AND an honorable mention. I knew from my research that was unheard of. They did not usually have Honorable Mentions. I was announced as that rare honoree. Initially I was disappointed but having been mentioned at all, to have been considered, WAS a victory.

One of the panelists was Dan Case of AWOC.COM Publishing who was quite taken with my pitch, my story, and me. I had a one-on-one session with him on Saturday as well as one with Arielle Eckstut, one of the Book Doctors.

Flash forward two months to the OWFI Conference. One of the sessions was on the Elevator Pitch. Again, my Transgressive work, having recently been perfected, was blurted out in a one sentence pitch. More applause and appreciation.

I run into Dan Case. He remembers me. He still wants to see what I’ve got up my sleeve. I send him both pieces that I pitched back at the KWA Scene Conference. We can flash forward some more. Because Dan Case decides to publish the neo-noir hardboiled mystery, “Swan Song”, currently available on Amazon Kindle and Paperback, Barnes and Noble Nook and Paperback, and Kobo e-books.

It’s really mind-boggling, amazing, fascinating, and fun, all at the same time. I keep thinking that Raymond Chandler published his first novel, “The Big Sleep”, when he was 51. I beat him by six months.

It’s only a start. I know that. I don’t know where it actually goes from here. But it all really started because of a crazy event called Pitchapalooza.

I Write Transgressive Fiction; Does That Make Me a Bad Guy?

I got a Tweet from David Henry Sterry, one half of The Book Doctors. I had met him and his wife, Arielle Eckstut, at the KWA Scene Conference in March of this year while competing in Pitchapalooza. I pitched my dark comic Transgressive novel Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing and was well received.

The Tweet from David was “what exactly is transgressive fiction?” I responded “Main characters who feel confined by the norms of society. Think Fight Club & American Psycho. (was this a test?)” He came back with “not a test. just curious. is curious george transgressive character? cat in the hat? certainly max from wild things, right? ” Interesting. I hadn’t thought about it from that perspective. I clarified: “Got to add drugs, sex, violence and other taboo subjects into the mix. For the characters, THAT’S normal.” Sometimes the Socratic method does work best.

For my own interests, I looked researched on Wikipedia and found this definition by LA Times literary critic, Michael Silverblatt:

“A literary genre that graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships, and that is based on the premise that knowledge is to be found at the edge of experience and that the body is the site for gaining knowledge.”

I looked back at my novel and the other collection I put together, Unemployed and Dangerous: A Trilogy of Transgressive Novellas. Was my work really like this? It was true that I explored very dark themes. The approach was offbeat, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, somewhat lyrical. There was an off-handedness to the extreme behavior, as though it were all just normal.

I have worked in customer service or retail for the better part of thirty years. I am certain that my life experience has informed my writing. I have always enjoyed film noir from the 40’s and 50’s, especially with the deep and dark psychological undertones. There is more than just crime in good crime fiction.

I had to go very deep within myself for that collection of novellas, scaring me at times and my wife just enough, before we both realized that I was lowering myself into a well but also pulling myself back up. And yet I know it’s there.

So, I conclude that I am NOT a bad guy but one who recognizes the possibility of badness, madness, degradation, and despair. Just as it is within all of us. And it is daring and scary to dive into those waters for the sake of a piece of writing and it is a dangerous journey to come back to stable ground. It creates an understanding of duality. It forces self-examination, which is necessary on both a personal and artistic level. It broadens the scope of character and literary skill.

I choose to go there knowing that I have the strength of will and the love of my wife to get back. I would not be satisfied any other way.

I might switch the pitch!

First of all, thank you to all who commented and provided feedback when I asked “Which Pitch to Pitch?” The overwhelming majority of those comments were to pitch the dark comic Transgressive fiction piece, the one that is probably “unpublishable.”

It appears my passion for this piece emerged while discussing my options. Rather than appearing equal to both, a preference inadvertently showed through.

That’ all right, though, because I was leaning toward it anyway. So, done, right? Hold that thought.

I wanted to have two finished pieces available for this writing conference, didn’t want to put all my literary eggs in one basket, so to speak. I was going to bring both. Weekend Getaways was ostensibly finished, just some cosmetic touches to make the interior with its strange fonts and line spacing stand out and be more appealing. Swansong needed a final edit, some tightening to keep it on track for being a face-paced hard-boiled crime fiction.

As I’m working on Swansong, I’m realizing that I’m really really enjoying it. It started out as a NaNoWriMo piece but had long since passed out of that phase and became defined and developed and, well, tight.

I love both of these children equally. They are stylistically different, deal with different themes, have a somewhat different voice, and show drastically different influences.

Yes, I’m bringing both to the writing conference. But I may make a switch on which pitch to pitch.

Hidden Treasures

I talk to other writers and read other writer’s blogs about writing and revision/editing. Everyone seems to say that writing your first draft is the easy part and that editing is where the real work starts. I do not disagree. My police procedural, The .9 mm Solution, is being completely restructured while my dark comic Transgressive fiction, Weekend Getaways, or Adventures in Contract Killing, is getting expanded into even weirder extremes.

It is tedious and detailed work. It requires an almost re-thinking of the project, attempting to separate yourself from the original impulse that caused you to start writing the piece while at the same time not lose the spark of that impulse. Frustration can lead to satisfaction.

What I am finding as I delve into each of these disparate pieces is that there are hidden treasures, sections of description, turns of phrase, foreshadowing, interesting characters or locations. I am finding aspects of my writing that were not there five years ago, much less in my formative years. Experience in life and practice of craft do yield positive results.

Yes, the actual work of editing and revision is still fraught with fright and requires the ultimate in patience and concentration. But if we look in closer, avoid for a moment “The Bigger Picture”, those hidden treasures are our rewards and the signposts toward the completion of our work.