Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Things to Consider, Things to Avoid

Writing a solid, far-out, totally righteous piece of flash fiction isn't as easy as it looks. It isn't about just gushing 500 words and shutting off the spigot. As the editors of Vestal Review state (and Jason Sanford restates in his excellent essay on the subject):

A good flash, replete with a cohesive plot, rich language and enticing imagery, is perhaps the hardest type of fiction to write. A good flash is so condensed that it borderlines poetry. A good flash engages your mind not only for the short duration of its read, but for a long time after.

I would even go so far as to say that a cohesive plot, along with brilliant characterization, is next to impossible in less than 500 words - as traditionally written. There just isn't enough space to flesh out a story in this way. That's why, as Jason Sanford decries, so much flash fiction focuses on "detail and scene over thought and opinion."

That is not to say it's impossible. There is something magical about a good piece of flash fiction. Much as a great novel oftens seems shorter than it really is, a good piece of flash fiction seems longer than it really is. There is more to the story than 500 words on a page. To borrow from our artist friends, the author makes as much, if not more, use of negative space as positive space. That is to say, the meat of the story lies in what isn't there as much as what is there. It challenges the reader to see beyond what is told, to - you know - think. I know that's not fashionable, but with the flash fiction form, if it is to have any merit at all, it is a requirement that the reader be engaged as directly and immediately as possible, and challenged to look beyond what they are used to reading in longer forms.

I believe the horror genre is the best genre for flash fiction because horror depends on mood for its affect, and because we are most frightened by the unknown and the unsuspected - and that's perfect for flash fiction. The hint of terror just beyond the door is infinitely more frightening than the monster sitting on your chest. One is about fear and one is about terror; one is a kick to the gut, the other a claw to the spine. Horror, by definition, is about terror, not fear. A gun pointed at your nose is scary as hell, but it's not a horror story. The trick is to use your 500 words to build that sense of horror into a story. The plot need not appear in the words, but it must be implied in them.

Some common forms of flash fiction that you should avoid:

The MFA Story: See this article, if you haven't already clicked on it.

The 'Dear Reader' Story: This is a story that affects the antiquated style of either Edgar Allen Poe or his attic-dwelling stepchild H.P. Lovecraft. The flash fiction form is so restricting and exacting that we sometimes tend to revert to the earliest days of the original flash fiction - that is to say - the short stories of Edgar Allen Poe. Or to be more accurate, our imprecise memories of Mr. Poe's fine contributions. We fear there isn't enough time to build a story and so we speak in the sort of generalities and "Dear Reader be forewarned" introductions that we find attached to the stories of Poe and Lovecraft. If there isn't enough room to tell your story in 500 words or less, you should just tell your story and don't try to stuff it into the flash fiction format.

Message in a Bottle: This style of story is a warning from beyond. It tells the horrible fate of some doomed individual or lost race or whatever, and arrives either in a bottle or a letter to a young nephew (or other relative, or future inhabitants) about to set out on life's grand and ofttimes frightening journey. It usually ends with some variation on "I only hope someone finds this message..."

The Stinger: Stories that end with an actual or implied "Bwahahahahahaaaaaaa!" Also included in this category is any story that ends with a scream.

The Castle Arrrrrrrrrrg Story: At the end of this First Person POV story, the narrator dies, which begs the question, "How did he/she write his/her story?" This heading derives, of course, from the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the knights find the message inscribed by Olfin Bedwere of Rheged on the wall of the Cave of Caerbannog, telling the location of the Holy Grail in Castle Arrrrrrrrrrrrg. "He must have died while carving it."

The Gazetteer Entry: There is no story here. It is a brief history of some doomed land/people/civilization/world. Often accompanied by a warning to future generations.

More to come as I discover them. But please feel free to make suggestions in the Comments.

Welcome to Hell

Let's all belch a big gout of hellfire for Kathryn Eason and her super creepy Passover story, "Ten."

Kathryn lives in Southern California with a graduate student husband, two black cats, and a great many books. She's done time as a barista, an administrator for the Center for Astrobiology, and a university instructor. Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-Fées, and she just finished a novel (Not the first one, but the first one that's worth reading! she says) that needs a new home.

Art Order

Here are our current art needs:

  • Zombies Versus Dinosaurs

Remember - simple, sketchy, grotesque, weird, black-n-white. See the art guidelines for how to submit.

If you don't submit, you must acquit!

Gut Bombs

Hell yawns wide to consume RJ Sevin's fast food frolic "Dickey Size It." It's not the saturated fats that'll kill ya.

RJ wishes it to be known:

I was born and raised in the shadow of New Orleans, surrounded by horror movies, monster masks, sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll. I've designed Haunted Houses for Six Flags, written a micro-budget horror flick that, once shot, turned out quite badly, and am currently nudging my novel through its third draft. I co-edited (with my lovely wife, Julia) and published the Stoker-nominated anthology, Corpse Blossoms. (Our second release, Tom Piccirilli's Frayed, was published earlier this month.) I've called Dallas home since Katrina gave us the big, wet boot. I'm currently packing for our return to Cajun Country, just in time for the start of hurricane season. I may need my head examined.

We couldn't agree more. Welcome to Postcards from Hell, RJ.

Not Dead Yet

Just mostly dead. But we're rousing up from our musty tombs and polishing our black staffs of horrid wilting for a night of unimaginable terror and fearsome magic and maybe even a laser blast or two.

(Of course, we won't be infringing anyone's copyright because there's one creature even mightier than the Gods of Lankhmar, and that is the voracious plague of rat otherwise known as the copyright lawyer.)

Which is to say, we'll soon be opening the doors of hell to admit new supplicants seeking recognition from the Dark Master. There'll be changes, of course, because hell is, if nothing else, full of fools who couldn't leave well enough alone.

The First Change you may have already noticed. We have a new name - Postcards From... Other changes include new guidelines, new payment arrangements for our authors, plus something special that we think you'll like. And there'll be an anthology available, of stories first published in Postcards from Hell: The First Thirteen. The cost - $6.66 of course.

We'll announce them all soon enough, my pretties.

So check back soon.

The Birthday Archipelago

"The Birthday Archipelago"
by Alasdair Stuart

'It's metastasised, Father. I'm so sorry.'
'Father Cross?' Brian Murphy looked like a farmhand, a long way from home. Built broad and tall, his physical appearance concealed a photographic memory that Nathan had found invaluable on more than one occasion. He stretched, felt his left knee crack back into place and smiled. 'Is it time?'
The Archbishop leaning across the table. 'Nathan, what do you know about Binary?'

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Tormented Soul's Guide to Speculative Fiction

Horror, science fiction, fantasy - these genres are often grouped together under the mantle of "speculative fiction." In speculative fiction, the author indulges in speculation - the contemplation of things not known, according to one definition.

As writers, we are often told by creative writing instructors (there's a special place in hell for them) to "Write What You Know." It's one of those golden rules that you have to learn how to break. It is important to write what you know. However, you shouldn't limit your writing to what you currently know.

I get lots of backyard stories - that is, stories written in the author's tiny backyard of knowledge and experience. This isn't always a bad thing. There are stories to be told here, but for them to evolve beyond the backyard and become speculative fiction, they must speculate beyond what you currently know. You must research, expand your horizons of knowledge, or be an accomplished bullshitter able to make up alien landscapes of such imagination and depth and scope as to become vividly real to the reader. Your stories must be written in such a way as to make the reader care about what's going on in your backyard. Are there interesting smells coming from your barbecue? Does it sound like people are having fun there? Is your garden secret or special enough to wow the neighbors?

In the old guidelines for Dungeon magazine, they listed a number of plots to avoid. To paraphrase one of them, a sane wizard with real motivations, foibles, strengths and weaknesses is much more interesting than an insane wizard bent on destroying all life as we know it because he's, you know, nuts. The same holds true for serial killers. Completely crazy Ed Gein type serial killers lounging on couches upholstered with mama's skin maybe be horrible in a freak show carnival way, but they don't make for good stories unless there is something more to them than their insane compulsion to decorate lamp shades with women's fingernails. It's impossible to truly get inside the head of a serial killer, so you must speculate about what really motivates him. You must make him or her unique, not only to you, but to the reader. The editor is the first (and most difficult) reader you have to convince.

Because trust me, my slush pile is bursting with serial killers. They all eat their victims, too, or collect their eyeballs, or whatever. A pinky-toe collecting serial killer isn't likely to excite us, even though we haven't read any pinky-toe collectors. Half the population thinks the scariest thing in the world is the mad-I-tell-you serial killer. But this is hell. We play bacci with the Ted Bundy's skull. Leonard Lake shines our hooves. Chances are your story's serial killer isn't going to make it out of the Lake of Fire.

H.P. Lovecraft wrote what he knew - rural New England - but he placed into it horrors of his own imagination. And he didn't have to dig deep to find them. As Holmes says in "The Adventure of the Copper Beeches,"

It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside... But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser.

Therein*, dear writer, you too can find your own personal glimpse of hell with which to populate our simple postcards. Find a unique place that you know very well, a place where horror can take hold, and then fill it with your nightmare. Because the best horror hides amid the ordinary. That's what makes it believable, and to be an effective horror story it must, above all else, be believable.

*No, this is not a specific call for farmhouse horror. Although I would appreciate seeing a few more stories set outside the generic urban/suburban American landscape.

Hello, Jerry

If you haven't heard, the Postal Service is raising the cost of postage next month - I believe the date is May 14.
Which means the postage costs for Postcards from Hell is going up.

When I set the subscription rate for Postcards from Hell, I did so based on postage being 24-cents for domestic postcards. The rate is going up 2-cents. That doesn't sound like much, but that translates to $3.38 in postage for each subscription. Subtract the Paypal fee for subscribing, and you see that there's not much left over to pay the authors.

Which means that we need more subscriptions that I originally calculated just to make this venture pay for itself. We're not there yet. We've got a ways to go. If you haven't subscribed yet, please do so. I'm not going to raise the rate to cover the increased cost of postage. Even in hell, we have some honor.

So allow me to repeat myself a bit. A subscription to Postcards from Hell only costs $6.66, and for that you're going to get 13 of the best horror stories published anywhere by anybody. My goal is for The First 13 to pay for itself, but what I'd really like is to get enough subscriptions to help pay for future series of Postcards from Hell, as well as series for science fiction and fantasy.

I can't make that happen without you. If you think these postcard tales are a unique idea worthy of support, please subscribe. If you have already subscribed, encourage others to join. If there is a horror fan in your life, buy them a gift subscription. Isn't there someone in your life that you'd like to totally creep out for a mere $6.66?

Don't let Newman win!

Old Emmett's Grave

"Old Emmett's Grave"
by Scott Virtes

The tombstone of Emmett Richards has a huge cartoonish mouth. Its stony lips move when it detects an audience, and it gives a play-by-play of the action beneath ...

"Oh the agony, buried and forgotten, muscles taut, torn, defiled. And the burrowing -- constant burrowing -- flesh gone back to mother Earth to nourish her worms, her soil. My bones feel the stewy coffin air, sensitive as hell, stinging with every insect footfall. Blazing white jarring pain! I want to wipe them off, have another chance at life, but my arms are useless sticks ..."

Read the rest here.

All One Wants for Christmas

"All One Wants for Christmas"
by James S. Dorr

"All one wants for Christmas, really, after one reaches a certain age, is no more than what we have here, don't you think?" I winked as I said this -- she knew what I meant. "Good food, good drink." I smiled as I raised my glass. "Good conversation, just you and I. The company, for me, of a beautiful woman."

Read the rest here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Tip to Make Our Lives Easier

When submitting a story electronically, please be sure that you can receive the editor's response at your email address.

To that end, MJ from UK, your story has been consigned to the Lake of Fire.

Knee-deep Thoughts, by Hack Jandy

When we started up this little venture, we thought we'd need a nice quiet corner of hell to set up our office, someplace secluded, but still close enough to the Lake of Fire so we wouldn't have to walk too far to take a dump. So we asked the level manager to arrange something and naturally he stuck us next to the break room.

Since then, I've noticed something about microwave popcorn that I'd like to share. I know, I know - this is hell. Why do we need microwaves to pop popcorn? Why can't we just lay the bags on the ground and pop them with the heat emanating from our cloven hooves?

Because then the bag catches fire, silly! And you know how awful burned popcorn smells. There's a whole level of hell set aside especially for middle managers - and it smells like burned popcorn.

Anyhoo, I just wanted to say, if you really smell microwave popcorn, and I mean smell it honestly, from a distance, without any thought as to actually eating it, it doesn't smell that much different than smelly tennis shoes. Some brands more than others. But there is a fine line between the smell of microwave popcorn and the smell of old sneakers.

Something to think about while you're waiting for your first Postcard from Hell. Something else to think about - the flavoring in microwave popcorn gives people lung disease. But at least it's convenient, right?

Postal Service from Hell

Wow. The new postage rates have knocked us back a bit here in hell. Domestic postage, as you know, went up 2-cents last month. OK. We can live with that. But international rates?

To our subscribers from Canada, UK, Ireland, and South Korea, please be aware that you're getting a bargain. For $13.10, you're getting a subscription that costs us $11.70 just to mail.

And I thought we were cruel.

Unfortunately, we're going to have to bump up the cost of an international subscription for all new subscribers. We're very sorry to have been out-helled by the Postal Service. We will try to do better in the future.

Lugosi Rock

"Lugosi Rock"
by Scott Virtes

Lugosi tumbled outside the window, just another silent rock in a disappointing universe. The ore-ship Ramona struck a low, irregular orbit and Malone looked down hungrily.

"You're telling me this rock is haunted?" asked Chief Malone. All alone, he could call himself whatever he liked.

The computer repeated the tale of poor Harry Lingard, who manned the pirate radio station here. Harry, who went mad, and went through the airlock with no boots on, years ago.

Malone pounded the console. Ramona was having a breakdown and had melted his stash of food; now, clutching his stomach, he looked at pockmarked Lugosi. The tiny asteroid had the nearest cold war bunker, the nearest stockpile of free food. He had no time for pointless stories.

Read the rest here.