All posts by Mike

Genre-bending writer.

Quote of the day

“Finish reading an especially difficult book, and its cover functions more like a trophy awarded for intellectual labor. Carry a book around in public, and its cover can betray you to other people who will make assumptions about you. It feels risky to be so exposed, but at times such assumptions are welcome, as when a book cover, flashed across a crowded subway car, operates like a secret handshake.”

Peter Mendelsund and David J. Alworth

After Dinner Conversations — a review

After Dinner Conversations

After Dinner Conversations is “a website of short stories designed to encourage ethical and moral conversations with friends, family, and social groups.” When I read that the featured stories aimed to “create an accessible example of an abstract ethical or philosophical idea,” I was immediately reminded of the novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.

Except that After Dinner Conversations (ADC) succeeds much better.

Sophie’s World is an enjoyable and challenging tale that explores the nature of reality. In the story, the protagonist must master philosophical concepts to regain control of her life, which has been taken over and altered by a philosopher.

What I like about ADC is that the philosophy is more deeply embedded in the story. While Sophie’s World throws huge chunks of philosophical exposition at the reader, the stories in ADC craft philosophical problems into plot points.

In Tyler W. Kurt’s “The Shadow of the Thing,” for example, Dakota, the POV character, visits her friends Maeve and Jason, who’ve asked her to join them for the evening. Maeve intends to take a drug that allows one to see the “true world” that’s “layered on top of the world that you see around you.” Later, while waiting for the drug to kick in, Dakota and Maeve sit back and watch the shadows on the wall.

The allusion to Plato’s Cave signals the story’s theme of looking – and seeing – beyond appearances. I thought it amusing that the author foreshadowed (!) the theme at the beginning of the story, when we learn that Maeve and Jason, both unconventional personalities, live in an ordinary tract home in the suburbs. Not exactly the place one would expect to find a wingsuit-diving programmer or a travel blogger who’s visited over 70 countries.

ADC says its goal is to feature stories that spark discussion, and this story clearly succeeds. Jason has already had his eyes opened by the mysterious drug. But the experience seems to have permanently depressed him. Does seeing underlying reality sap one’s enthusiasm? Are our illusions our surest comfort in a bleak world? If so, why would Maeve (and perhaps Dakota) want to follow his example?

And that’s just off the top of my head. Many more fascinating issues lurk beneath the surface here.

I’ll close with a little speculation about the characters’ names. Maeve is an alternate spelling of Queen Medb of Irish mythology, whose name means “she who intoxicates.” In Greek mythology, Jason was married to the sorceress Medea, who ultimately destroy each other. Does this suggest how the Maeve and Jason in “The Shadow of the Thing” end up?

As I said, the possibilities for generating discussion abound.

Writers and their Weapons

Writers Weapons

I’ve signed a contract with Mystery Weekly Magazine, which will publish my novelette “Absence of Evidence” this winter. This is my second story with them, and I do believe I’ll be writing more crime fiction. This is fun.

Writing murder mysteries has reminded me of the importance of knowing the tools of the trade. Agatha Christie learned about poisons as a nurse in World War I, and drew on that knowledge to devise her delightfully macabre plots. Mickey Spillane, who’d served in World War II, used his knowledge of guns to add chills and gritty realism to his hardboiled yarns.

Growing up in the country, I spent a lot of time hunting, fishing, and backpacking. Like Clifton Clowers, I got to be mighty handy with a gun and a knife. Isshin-ryu karate introduced me to kobudo, the melee weapons techniques of Okinawan martial arts. Many of my fantasy stories feature both firearms and melee weapons. Knowing their uses and limitations makes the action more believable.

So from left to right in the above image, here are some of the most popular melee weapons (and their dirty secrets):

Knives don’t get the respect they deserve. Guns get all the attention. But knives never jam, never run out of ammo, and are ready when you are. A gun must have a round in its chamber, and you can’t fire it if you forget to turn off the safety. Also, a gun doesn’t always beat a knife. Once he’s about 25 feet from his target, a skilled knife fighter can swoop in and overwhelm a gunman before he can unholster. And every knife wound is potentially lethal.

The sai is another weapon people don’t properly respect. (Cue the theme song from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.) It may appear to be just for show, but it’s a real weapon. Okinawan police used it for centuries. Though it has sword-like wrist guards, a sai is really a baton. Sai techniques can be adapted to makeshift weapons, such as a heavy-duty screwdriver.

The tonfa is also a modified baton. The side handle allows a superior grip, which makes it an effective blocking weapon, and also prevents it from rolling away if dropped. But it’s also an excellent offensive weapon. The side handle enables a skilled user to whip the tonfa with bone-breaking power. Side-handled batons are standard issue in many police departments.

The nunchaku is one weapon that can do more harm to its user than the target. I’ve seen it happen. It’s easy to miscalculate the nunchaku’s lightning-fast arc, and if it strikes something solid, it can bounce back and rap your face or knuckles. I still practice nunchaku katas, but more for the discipline than practicality. And hey, it looks cool.

The standard baton (nightstick) is the most useful and reliable melee weapon. Anyone can pick one up and use it, but it’s especially potent in the hands of someone who knows its capabilities. A baton can be used in countless choking, restraining, and blocking techniques, as well as for good old-fashioned skull-cracking. And its high-tech cousin, the collapsible baton, is not only discrete, but can be quickly deployed, making it both handy and practical.

4.5 stars for Mystery Weekly Magazine

Readers have posted their reviews of the June, 2020 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine, which features my story The Calculus of Karma.

Time is running out for Malcolm Lamb, a rookie deputy marshal on the mining asteroid 16 Psyche. A miner is dead, and the news sparks an escalation in the deadly feud between corporation and wildcat miners. Deputy Lamb has to make sense out of a handful of bizarre and contradictory clues if he’s to prevent more bloodshed.

Robin Grenville Evans’s cover perfectly captures the mood of the story.

Mystery Weekly Magazine is a Mystery Writers of America approved publisher, and is available on Kindle Newsstand, Flipster, and on Amazon in paperback or Kindle format. One reader review said this about the June, 2020 edition: “I always enjoy Mystery Weekly. It not only offers a vast variety of writers, but the quality of the writing is amazing.”

Check it out!

Quote of the day

Library
My den.

“People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night…”

“I live in a world of imagination, which is set in motion by something suggested by my intimate surroundings rather than by outside influences, which distract me and give me nothing. I find an exquisite joy when I search deeply in the recesses of myself, and if anything original is to come from me, it can only come that way.”

Claude Debussy

So, how about it, folks? Do you recharge your creative juices relaxing at home, among intimate surroundings, or by going out into the world?

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

The hard-working folks at The Internet Speculative Fiction Database have updated my bibliography to include my recent publications.

This is a fantastic resource for readers and writers of speculative fiction. It provides links to directories of authors and publishers, as well as a comprehensive magazine database. You’ll also find links to a gold mine of bibliographic research for all types of speculative fiction, including sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

Each day, the home page features a listing of international authors born and deceased on that date. Great fodder for blog posts or Tweets!

Get Out of the Way!

Get out of the way

Many of the submissions Joe Ponepinto has turned down for his literary journal appeared to have everything going for them — tension, good characterization, an interesting premise — yet they just didn’t work. He had to reject stories that hit all the right buttons, but failed to resonate.

Writing as both an editor and author, he tells us what’s wrong with technically sound but lifeless submissions:

In short, the writer is present in every sentence, hunched over the reader’s shoulder, which is why so much in these stories sounds like explanation, like the writer worrying that readers won’t “get it” unless they lay out paragraphs of background info. As Elmore Leonard famously said, it sounds like writing.

How do you create writing that doesn’t sound like writing? Yes, you have to hit all the right buttons, including pacing, characterization, theme, plot points, tension, etc, but you have to do it without the reader seeing you do it. And you can only do that when you don’t think about those technicalities. As Ponepinto puts it, “You have to internalize the conventions of creative writing so that you know them without thinking about them.”

Or, as Ernest Hemingway advised, “Write drunk, edit sober.”

The goal is what the Japanese call zanshin, the state of total awareness made possible by unselfconscious mastery of your craft. There’s only way to get there, and that is to practice the techniques of your craft until they enter your subconscious. In karate class, we had to practice basic skills repeatedly until they became second nature. In a tournament (or, more urgently, a street fight) you cannot win if you obsess over methodology. (How did sensei tell me to block a low punch?)

Martial arts require unconscious mastery and total focus, attributes that are invaluable in every aspect of life, including writing. Here’s what Wannabe Bushcrafter counsels about mastering the sling:

Your mind must be completely clear. Try to not think about anything when slinging. Distracting thoughts absolutely kills accuracy. …

Now here is the hard part! You need to practice, A LOT. You need to practice every single day for hundreds of days. Practice until your arm and back are sore, practice until thick hard calluses form on your release fingers. Practice until your muscles, your eyes and your mind become one. Practice until you are able to consciously purge all thoughts from your mind at a moment’s notice.

For writers, that means we must read a lot and write a lot.

Quote of the day

“When I was a kid, I read Robert A. Heinlein, I read H.P. Lovecraft, I read Robert E. Howard, and then later Tolkien. Some of these would be classified as fantasy, some as horror and some as science fiction. To me, they were all stories, they were imaginative stories that took me to other worlds, other times, or other planets or dimensions or what have you, and I enjoyed the hell out of them. I didn’t see these as totally different things. I still don’t. I think these distinctions are largely false ones.”

George R. R. Martin

Chasing Down the Muse

Sometimes you just need a change of venue.

I’ve been fairly productive lately, with a number of wips floating around the internet looking for love in the slush piles. This week, I sent a mystery novelette to Mystery Weekly Magazine, and am now working on a literary flash piece.

I don’t plan in advance what I’m going to take on next; I just wait for the Muse to tell me what genre I’m going to work in. Usually it’s sci-fi/fantasy, sometimes it’s crime/mystery, and rarely, literary. Like most writers, I just do what the voices in my head tell me.

But sometimes, even if you’re inspired, you gotta get away from the computer and the Great Distractor that feeds it. So today, I was out on the back porch, armed only with an ink pen and a legal pad. Instead of the crypt-like silence in my loft workspace, the occasional shout of children playing or a bit of bird song would drift through the trees. My wife and I practically live on that secluded back porch in warm weather. In the evenings we sip wine and talk as the sun sets. Later, we’ll read or work puzzles by the glow of the oil lamp. (Me, crosswords; she, Sudoku)

So, fellow writers, do you sometimes need to change writing venues? What’s your favorite getaway?