Authors, especially mystery writers, often have interesting browser histories. We also get to meet the most interesting people. Most recently, The Final Twist writers of Houston spent time at the Houston K-9 Academy where we met Yaz Stanze, learned the history of the academy and some of its most famous graduates, and witnessed a fascinating field demonstration of the dogs’ skills. We also learned much about Yaz. She has a fascinating history and we hope she writes a memoir.
A professional writer takes explicit control over all the elements of writing: plot, character, setting, style, and theme. For many writers the hardest of these is theme. Thematic elements can include everything from the moral of a story, to a specific worldview, to leitmotifs and recurring topics. I prefer to look at theme through the lens of philosophy. You have a philosophy. You can’t help it. Whether you’ve unquestioningly accepted the current philosophy of your culture or individually reasoned one out from first principles, you’ve got one. And whether you write the great American novel or formulaic pulp action, your philosophy is going to show up in your fiction.
Philosophy may come to the forefront as a prime plot driver (say in a didactic novel like Atlas Shrugged which illustrates Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy) or creep in as a pervasive approach to life (as in H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview that humans would go mad if they realized how utterly alien, meaningless, and malevolent the universe is. (Notice how this Lovecraftian theme meshes almost seamlessly with an extended exploration of endemic American racism in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country or its HBO adaptation.)).
Your philosophy may appear in woke or unwoke notions of race, gender roles, sexuality, or religion. How long do promiscuous women last in a typical slasher film? Women who step outside the roles the conservative patriarchy has assigned to them are brutally murdered by slashers wielding phallic weapons, often using first person camera to allow adolescent incels to vicariously punish what they most hate. It is no accident that women’s lib and slasher films arose at virtually the same time in a deeply conflicted and divided culture.
What position does your protagonist take towards personal responsibility? A bad guy takes an innocent hostage and threatens to shoot her if our hero doesn’t drop his gun. In Tom Laughlin’s film Billy Jack, our hero says to go ahead and shoot her. The bad guy says, “You’d kill her? Just like that?” Billy says, “You’ll kill her. And then I’ll kill you. Just like that.” Imagine how different most action fiction would be if heroes took this position consistently. It hearkens back to the ethical philosophy of Socrates and is a refreshing alternative to the cliched hostage tropes we have to suffer through in countless action fiction.
Contrast Billy Jack’s philosophy of personal responsibility with the attitude of Batman in Frank Miller’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. The Joker is wreaking havoc in an amusement park, handing out free, poisoned cotton candy to a whole troop of boy scouts. In a thought balloon the Joker imagines himself talking to Batman,
They could put me up in a helicopter and fly me up in the air and line the bodies head to toe on the ground in delightful geometric patterns like an endless June Taylor dancing routine—and it would never be enough. No, I don’t keep count. But you do. And I love you for it.
Batman chases the Joker through a hall of mirrors and then into a tunnel of love, while the Joker is killing random innocents all along the way. Neither setting is accidental: the Joker considers himself as a twisted reflection of Batman locked in a perverted romantic seduction whose only logical conclusion is death. Thought balloons show Batman agonizing over every victim, just as the Joker wants him to. All because Batman will not kill. He has captured and sent the Joker to Arkham Asylum time after time. And time after time the Joker has escaped and added more victims. It’s Batman’s ongoing shame that all those deaths are the cost of his decision not to end the cycle once and for all, the ongoing price of maintaining his own, rigid moral code. He vows that this time will be different. When the Joker takes a hostage, Batman puts out the Joker’s right eye with a batarang. Eventually, badly wounded, Batman breaks the Joker’s neck to paralyze him and end his reign of terror. The Joker mocks him for not having the nerve to go all the way then ups the ante by suicidally completing the neck-breaking, killing himself to make the police think Batman is a murderer. All that drama depends entirely on Batman having a philosophy of personal responsibility for the acts of others very different from Billy Jack’s. A good writer consciously takes up these philosophical issues and uses them to drive his/her fiction.
I just finished the first Shell Scott detective novel by Richard S. Prather. Our hero has been imprisoned with an innocent girl he’s been tracking. Their captors are a pair of vicious, murdering twins, and the captives are set to be executed as soon as night falls. Shell comes up with a desperate plan which works, leaving one twin shot dead and the other lying helpless on the floor. Shell and the girl escape. Shell knows that the other twin will most likely recover and come looking for vengeance. That is exactly what happens, and Shell is forced to go through a second gun battle resulting in the second twin’s death. Why didn’t he just shoot the second twin the first time he had him incapacitated? One bullet behind the ear and future problem solved. Prather can’t allow his goody-two-shoes hero to even contemplate taking such unfair advantage of a helpless opponent. It wouldn’t be fair. Shell kills, but he isn’t a killer. He only uses violence defensively, reactively. He’s the good guy.
Contrast Prather’s philosophy with a passage from Simon R. Greene’s Unnatural Inquirer. Our hero, John Taylor, has just won a desperate magical battle with the evil Kid Cthulhu. Lying on the floor, temporarily incapacitated, Kid Cthulhu says,
“Kill you, Taylor. Kill you for this. Kill you and all your friends, and everyone you know. I have people. I’ll send them after you, and I’ll never stop, never. Never!”
“I believe you,” I said. And I raised my foot and stamped down hard on the back of his fat neck. I felt as much as heard his neck break under my foot, and as easily as that the life went out of him. I stepped back. Bettie looked at me, horrified.
“You killed him. Just like that. How could you?”
“Because it was necessary,” I said. “You heard him.”
“But . . . I never thought of you as a cold-blooded killer . . . You’re supposed to be better than that.”
“Mostly I am,” I said. “But no-one threatens me and mine.”
“I don’t know you at all, do I?” Bettie said slowly, looking at me steadily.
“I’m just . . . who I have to be.”
Which hero do you want—the good guy who follows a sporting code at the cost of inviting future violence, or the ruthless, proactive violence of the hero who does what he must to protect the innocent? Each represents a different philosophy. The expert writer thinks out these philosophical acts and their ramifications. And he does so through the actions of the characters rather than inserting moral essays. Show versus tell.
Some (rather cynical) writers may spend all their time trying to figure out their audiences’ philosophies and then write character actions to reinforce those (à la the slasher pictures that cashed in on male, anti-feminist rage). Other (more authentic, grounded) writers may incorporate their own philosophies into their fiction and just hope that resonates with an audience. Still other writers may try to work out a tough moral conundrum by putting different positions onto different characters and then setting up an environment to force a confrontation.
In the Republic, Plato uses the parable of the Ring of Gyges to illustrate his ethical theory. A shepherd finds a magical ring that renders him invisible. He proceeds to use it to seduce the queen and usurp the throne. Would you act morally if you were given the power to get away with any immorality without fear of consequences? Plato describes the human soul as divided into three parts: a rational part (impersonal, unbiased reason), a spirited/ambitious part (think the part that needs to win and excel at any endeavor), and an appetitive part (think id: lust, gluttony, addiction). We know they are distinct parts because they can conflict with one another. The athlete who craves glorious victory can resist the entreaties of his appetite to control his diet, but he can also ignore the rational advice of his doctors and attempt to compete before an injury has fully healed. Plato likens the moral individual as having a truly balanced soul. The soul is a chariot that wins the race of life by having the reason as driver, rigidly controlling the horse of appetite, and moderately controlling the horse of ambition, all for the good of the whole. What use is the Ring of Gyges to the balanced soul? It would only tempt him to allow the appetite or ambition to get out of control and thus crash the chariot. The best thing for the good man to do is put the Ring in a box and never touch it.
Or perhaps throw it into the fires of Mordor? The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s extended working out of Plato’s theme, probably informed by the temptations of the U.S. to use nuclear weapons to fight the evils of Fascism and Communism. Gandalf or Galadriel are finely tuned balances of powerful soul elements. For either to take the Ring would be more dangerous to Middle-earth than for it to fall into Sauron’s “hands.” Only Frodo has the strength of character to bear the Ring and eschew its temptations.
Plato’s philosophy of the tripartite soul was taken up and modified by Gene Roddenberry to form the dynamic relationship between Spock, McCoy, and Kirk on Star Trek. In episode after episode, the ethical solution to a dilemma is invariably Kirk’s synthesis of the emotionless logic of Spock and the overly emotional humanism of McCoy. Roddenberry’s ideal chariot has the explorer/warrior Kirk handling the horses of pure logic (Spock) and boundless care for sentient life (McCoy) for the good of the Enterprise and the beings it encounters.
A skillful author can take competing notions of the good and force them to compete in action. Where the stakes are the highest, what values matter most? Suppose you took the sorting hat from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and used it on Roddenberry’s characters.
You might belong to Gryffindor,
Where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry,
Set Gryffindors apart;
You might belong to Hufflepuff,
Where they are just and loyal,
Those patient Hufflepuffs are true
And unafraid of toil;
Or yet of wise old Ravenclaw,
If you’ve a ready mind,
Where those of wit and learning,
Will always find their kind;
Or perhaps in Slytherin,
You’ll make your friends,
Those cunning folk use any means,
To achieve their ends.
McCoy goes to Hufflepuff. Spock goes to Ravenclaw. Kirk sure wants to go to Gryffindor. He might even resist when the hat tries to slot him into Slytherin. Maybe the hat reluctantly lets him have his way, but the Slytherin is there in him just like Harry’s parseltongue. The Kirk who cheated to be the only cadet to beat the Kobayashi Maru test is a Slytherin man. Remember that the real hero of the Harry Potter books, and the man after whom Harry names one of his sons, is a Slytherin. Kirk may be brave, daring, and chivalrous, but he above all wants to win, and if cunning works better than outright bravery, then cunning it is. It’s not the brave Kirk who defeats Khan; it’s the cunning Kirk who wins. Achilles is brave, daring, and chivalrous. But who won the Trojan War: brave Achilles or wily Odysseus? Kirk is an Odysseus figure. Kirk and Severus Snape would’ve gotten along just fine over at Slytherin House. And when everything is on the line, it’s Kirk and Severus I want on my side.
Knowing the philosophies incorporated into the very essence of a particular genre can save you a lot of mistakes. If you are a sunny individual who opts to trust others until proven otherwise, you might not want to write noir fiction. If you’re a natural collectivist communitarian, you’re not going to be writing a genuine western successfully. I wouldn’t have encouraged Lovecraft to write any romcoms. Readers and writers often choose particular subgenres because they find them reliably in tune with their own philosophical worldview.
But if there is no niche out there for your own particular philosophy, go ahead and write what is authentic for you. Who knows, you might invent a new subgenre of your own and inspire a whole host of people to share your vision. It worked for H. P. Lovecraft, Carroll John Daly, and Ayn Rand. But whatever you choose, do it with calculated cunning. Go Slytherin.
by C. J. Sweet
I have a best friend who swears by fortunes found inside curled-up cookies and served as dessert with her shrimp chow mein or General Tso. And she’s not the only one. Over three billion fortune cookies are sold each year. Of course, Chinese fortune cookies aren’t actually Chinese. They originated in the United States, with three individuals claiming their creation.
Makota Hagiware, a Japanese landscape designer in San Francisco, was connected with the Japanese Tea Garden until his death in 1925. David Jung, a Chinese immigrant who founded the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, began passing out free fortune cookies to people in the street as early as 1918. The cookies contained Bible verses instead of fortune predictions, but Jung is said to be the first mass producer of the modern fortune cookie. Seiichi Kito, owner of a Japanese confectionary store in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, got his idea from Omikuji, little strips sold in Japanese temples. Any of the three claiming ownership of the idea may have borrowed it from a Japanese cookie called tsujiura senbei. They are made of miso rather than vanilla and butter, and the fortune is wedged into a bend of the cookie.
An entrepreneur in Hong Kong even imported fortune cookies from America, calling them “Genuine American Fortune Cookies.” So, what has this got to do with writers, or anyone else for that matter? Two reasons.
The first reason is found in Ladders, an online resource for job searchers. In their recent post, “6 legit jobs that seem too good to be true,” they state manufacturers of fortune cookies hire freelancers or in-house writers to create the inspiring fortunes. It can be “either a part-time or full-time position” in case you’re interested. Required skills include the ability to be concise (convey a message in a few short words) and, needless to say, possess a sense of humor. You’re thinking this may not be all it’s cracked up to be? The average annual income can fall between $40k and $80k.
Which leads us to the second reason fortune cookies can be beneficial to writers. I must preface this with the realization of late that fortune cookies no longer contain fortunes. Rather, they contain sayings, maxims, or known facts. In my opinion, not nearly as engaging as predicting the future. One can only surmise that such a change may have involved a lawsuit for misrepresentation? No matter. What I propose as an exercise of sorts is to pretend you are one of those fortunate writers of fortunes. If you could put forth a message of some kind, your dearest or deepest thoughts (or even predictions), knowing it would be read by over three billion people, what would you say – in two sentences or less?
A year ago, it may have been, “Get off the planet! Now! Before it’s too late!” But now? Would you give words of hope? A plea for peace? Or something still true, though done to death, like “Doing good is its own reward.” Duh. Hey, there’s a good one. “Duh.” Remember—a sense of humor is a prerequisite.
This morning, our wonderful TFT secretary tossed all the drawing entries in a hat and pulled the following three winners:
- Sam Rappenecker
- Pauline Baird Jones
- Marg Fuller
Congrats to one and all! I will be in touch to learn if you prefer an e- or paperback book.
Thanks to all who played along and following our progress to release day.
Cornelia Amiri, multi-genre, multi-format writer joins me today to talk about her love of romance, history, and reading.
It seems you write a lot of romance: Young Adult Romance, Historical Romance, Fantasy Romance, Sci-fi Romance, Comedy Romance, Erotica Romance, and Steampunk romance. Do all of them feature HEA endings?
As a romance reader and writer, I find cross-genre books, which combine historical, fantasy, comedy, or sci-fi with romance to die for. HEAs are one of the features that define the romance genre. The purpose of happy endings in the genre is the roller coaster ride of rising steeply from the crisis moment where the characters are facing a doomed ending per the outer story as well as the inner story, (which is the romantic relationship between the two leads). That move from the darkest point to the top high of a happy ending generates a powerful emotional reaction in the reader which is essential to the genre.
In addition to all that romance, you’ve written books in other genres including non-romance fantasy with The Ghost Lights of Marfa, nonfiction history with Forged In Irish Bronze and Iron: The High Kings, literary fiction with I Love You More, and a cozy mystery short story in the Final Twist anthologies: A Death In Texas and Chosen By the Writers. Is there a genre still on your bucket list?
Yes, though I have ghostwritten memoirs for clients I have never written one of my own. I am working on a memoir now to be titled, A Baby Boomers 2020 Bingo Card, subtitled —Cornelia’s Coronavirus Diary. It’s a humorous, true account of my odd experiences in the year of the outbreak, specifically March 2020 to March 2021. Writing about myself and baring all is different from authoring fiction or even nonfiction on a subject like history or business, but I am enjoying it. The experience is quite freeing and I’m hoping many people will be able to relate and also find it funny.
Have you ever based one of your characters on a real person?
Yes, in my young adult novel, The Prince of Powys, I drew on a zany, bubbly, and sweet co-worker. When she came into a room, it was as if sunshine came with her. I used her personality for my heroine, Branda. For the same book, The Prince of Powys, I drew on an old boyfriend as inspiration for the hero, Blaise. But I took his name from my son’s history teacher, Mr. Blaise, who was Welsh. In A Fine Cauldron of Fish, I drew the heroine, Margaid’s personality from a good friend of mine. And the heroine, Ceridwen, in To Love A London Ghost was inspired by a trainer at a customer service job I had. She was bright and bubbly and loved food. She’d get so excited about all the pot lucks we had. I’ve never eaten better in any training class. We had potlucks every other day. In to Love A London Ghost, my heroine can’t eat as she’s a ghost, so she talks about food all the time and floats around the dining table smelling all the delicious Victorian fare, especially the yummy desserts.
You seem to have a real love of history. How did you get started writing historicals?
I love history as much as I love writing and I am driven to learn history and keep up with new discoveries as much as I’m driven to write. I couldn’t stop either one even if I wanted to. Strange as it seems,The Celtic Warrior Queen, Boudica, is the reason I began writing seriously. While reading a book about the dark ages, I came across Boudica. I was so inspired, I started jotting down notes, but they were fiction (it-must-have-happened-like-this type). Before I knew it, I had written a novel. I thought, gosh I can really do this. So, after accidentally writing that novel, I wrote one on purpose which was my first published book, The Celtic Prince.
Do you plot and plan your stories in advance, or just sit down and start creating?
I’m a bit in between a plotter and a panster. Once I have my idea (my premise), I pick a plot to go with it. Then I work up character charts on the hero and heroine, which include information on their family history and their likes and dislikes. Then, with a fairly good idea about the beginning and ending in my head, I begin the rough draft.
When did you discover the power of reading?
I loved reading as a child. In third grade, I read Charlotte’s Web and I wept at the end. It was the first book that ever made me cry. I didn’t realize before then that books had so much power that they could cause a physical response in the reader. I’d loved reading since I first learned how to in first grade but after that experience with Charlotte’s Web, I as was amazed and enthralled by reading. I still think reading is the greatest thing ever invented.
Thank you, Cornelia.
Tomorrow – April 15 – is RELEASE DAY! It’s also the day we announce winners of our drawing for a copy of CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS. If you’d like a chance to win a copy, simply leave a comment for this blog post.
What has driven this normally quiet, unassuming group into a burst of seemingly blatant self-promotion? Have they lost their collective minds? Has the webmaster run amok? And who thought posting that photo was a good idea? (Yup – photo removed) Could it be an abundance of excitement over publication of their 10th anthology? And which stories are in this anthology?
I can’t answer all those questions, but I do know which stories were selected for CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS and why. Part of the reason is that our early anthologies are out of print. New fans often ask us to reissue older volumes, but that’s not something we can do. We can, however, offer selected stories, with the authors’ permission, of course. We’ve done that in CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS. Every one of the previous nine anthologies is represented. Each of the stories was nominated by at least one current member of The Final Twist. Nominators and Authors were asked to share their thoughts about the selected stories. We share some of what we learned below.
Three Dogs, Dancing by C.J. Sweet
The tone of this piece is utterly charming as a reminiscence of events that happened to a nine-year-old girl. Many references to life in the 1950s in East Texas give it great authenticity, and the characters are well-drawn and credible. The humor is delightful, too. ~ Cash Anthony
A Mexican Adventure by Laura Elvebak
This story brought pieces of a long ago trip to Mexico to life and the new characters made writing about them a fun adventure.
White Rabbit by C.J. Sweet
This story is one of my favorite stories because I had so much fun writing it. It was a real trip looking back at the sixties and still relating totally to the old man in the bunny costume. My brother said, “This White Rabbit story is great. You need to write more like that.” Yeah, right. For me, those don’t come along every day. I was shocked when it got an Honorable Mention from Saturday Evening Post!
Sam’s Story by Charlotte Phillips
A kid named Sam who arrives on the doorstep of Eva Baum, private detective, turns out to be a girl whose father is leaving her with Eva, his neighbor, out of desperation. The story develops as a saga of family dysfunction, blackmail, and the solace that comes from a piece of really good chocolate cake. It ends with Eva doing a fine job of safe-cracking, discerning the best place to hide a kidnap victim, rescuing the desperate dad, and enjoying the prospect of Sam’s future wedding. Altogether a satisfying mystery ~ Cash Anthony
The Tailor Serves Kyselo by Mark H. Phillips
There are no extra words to this flash fiction, yet the story is colorful and dark, interwoven in a way that powerfully speaks about life and choices. ~Natasha Storfer
Sweet Potato Pie by C. J. Sweet
This story is part of a collection of stories built of bits and pieces of my childhood growing up in northeast Texas. I wrote this before my mom passed away the last day of 2020. It hits me hard because a lot of what’s in it really happened. My grandmother actually took a fork and tried to rake her veins out with it. Thankfully they got to her in time and she had to be put in a nursing home, but it was traumatic. She did have a wood-burning stove and made the best sweet potato pies I ever ate. The outhouse and the wolves really happened as well, along with the dead donkey. Those were the days!
The Big Bad Wolfe by Natasha Storfer
This steampunk story was wall-to-wall action saved by vignettes of humor and sarcastic wit, not only between humans, but between Polly and her remarkably witty AI. The descriptions were vivid and I felt I was along for the ride! It was believable, funny, gruesome, and totally entertaining! ~ C. J. Sweet
Hotline Homicide by Sally Love
Hotline Homicide is an amazing tale of empowerment and revenge with a lingering sweet taste of karma. ~ Natasha Storfer
Sally Love wrote with a great sense of humor about righting the wrongs of the world and of women finding the strength to stand up for themselves. Hotline Homicide deals with multiple social issues in one short story of good vs evil. I reread this one every year. ~ Charlotte Phillips
Stamp Collecting Gone Bad by Mark H. Phillips
This story was phenomenal to me because it wove so much into a short story and did so successfully. The story told by a small boy evolved from childhood embarrassment to smuggling, with side trips into picking locks and propaganda being passed off as coloring books. I immediately felt sympathy toward the protagonist, but the sad ploy of his father was beautifully balanced with humor and heart. Using the boy as narrator was genius, and I was grateful at the story’s end that he had managed to balance innocence in the midst of reality. ~ C. J. Sweet
A Shot of Courage by Laura Elvebak
This is a favorite because of the attention to diversity and the need for acceptance of who we are as as individuals.
Freedom Train by Charlotte Phillips
From the ripe old age of ten, when I first read The Diary of Anne Frank, I have been fascinated by everyday people who risk all for others, especially for strangers. These people are my heroes and this story is my small tribute to them.
The Honest Con Man by James R Davis
It was fun to write and the idea of insursance against winning (for profit) is worth considering.
In the Darkest Deep by Mark H. Phillips
My mother is terrified of both drowning and confined spaces. This story was my Mother’s Day present to my Mom.
Cave in the Canyon by Charlotte Phillips
Writing this story was sheer joy. It was the first, and so far only, time I experienced the writing nirvana of a story writing itself. I sat down with a vague idea, put my hands on the keyboard, and the words flowed from my fingers. At the time, I didn’t know there was a genre called Urban Fantasy, so I thought I’d had a fun, but unproductive day. When I had nothing else to present to my critique group, I presented this and learned of a whole new sub-genre.
It’s not too late to enter the drawing for a free copy of CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS. To enter, simply leave a comment for this post.
Yes, She Bites by Cash Anthony
An early story in the Jessie Carr series about a biker child/sleuth/avenging angel, this one gives the reader insight into the mindset of a female motorcyclist out on the road alone. It illustrates how Jessie can be a chameleon, adopting a new persona and image when the situation requires. And it addresses, in a humor way, a real issue in Texas privacy law that was finally changed.
A Recipe to Die For by Sally Love
A Recipe to Die For was my introduction to the writing of Sally Love. This fun tale of small town life, intrigue, and cozy mystery style was a joy a joy to read for this cozy lover. ~ Charlotte Phillips
Jadead by Iona McAvoy
This story combines chocolate jade dragon statues with mystical pwer, Houston Society and a wonderful crystal store. There is humor and mystery combined. And it was my husband’s favorite story!
Bona Fide Quirk in the Law by Cash Anthony
A motorcycle Chick, ostensibly an assassin, cratively uses knowledge of the law (and attitude) to win. ~ James R. Davis
An early story in the Jessie Carr series about a biker child/sleuth/avenging angel, this one gives the reader insight into the midnset of a female motorcyclist out on the road alone. It illustrates how Jessie can be a chameleon, adopting a new persona and image when the situation requires. And it addresses, in a humour way, a real issue in Texas privacy law that was finally changed.
Dead End Job by Cornelia Amiri
Written as a contemporary mystery in 2008, many of the Houston stores mentioned are no longer open. Also, Westheimer has undergone improvements, so it doesn’t flood as badly as it once did. This is outside my usual genre – this is the only murder mystery I’ve ever written. For some reason I find cows so funny. They make me laugh. And this has cows.
Anna Rose and Dead by Breakfast by Betty Gordon and The Best Man by Cash Anthony
Three lovely stories from our very first anthology – Dead and Breakfast – which is out of print.
April 15 – is RELEASE DAY! It’s also the day we announce winners of our drawing for a copy of CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS. If you’d like a chance to win a copy, simply leave a comment for this blog post.
Full disclosure: This interview is nearly the last in this series because it took me the longest to acquire. You might think getting your spouse to sit down and answer a few questions would be an easy task. In our case, you’d be wrong. I’m glad I persisted. I learned a few new things about my husband.
To what do you owe your success?
I live by Sherman Alexie’s advice, “For every page you write, read a thousand.” I’m a narrative junkie and biblioholic. When I can’t find exactly what I want to read next, I have to go ahead and write it myself. I enjoy writing, but I probably enjoy researching even more. For my science fiction novel, The Resqueth Revolution, I researched zero point energy and Nazi secret weapons projects for about six months and then wrote the first draft in just six weeks.
Which of your stories is your favorite?
I think I’d pick “The Fritz Ritz” in the Final Twist anthology, Underground Texas. It’s about a murder in a WWII POW camp in Fredericksburg, Texas. I enjoyed researching the history of the camp and read several journals by guards and German prisoners. I wrote the first draft in a little bed & breakfast in Fredericksburg to get the feel of the place. I also enjoyed researching and writing “In the Darkest Deep” in the anthology Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks. It’s a suspense story set in the abandoned tunnels of the Superconducting Super Collider near Waxahachie, Texas. I got to research illegal urban exploring and tunnel hacking and combine it with my experiences with SCUBA diving.
What are your top 3 short stories of all time?
“The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft. I took a half year and read S. T. Joshi’s excellent H. P. Lovecraft: A Life, simultaneously reading everything Lovecraft wrote as it came up in the context of his life. Cursed books of eldritch knowledge, unspeakable cosmic horror: what could be more fun?
“A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman. Now take the Cthulhu Mythos of Lovecraft and have a master storyteller like Neil Gaiman combine it with Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and it won the Hugo award for best short story.
“Glacial” by Alastair Reynolds. I like my SF hard and as cold as space itself.
You’ve also published two novels. Do you prefer writing novels or short stories?
Each has its attractions. With novels I enjoy the room to explore themes, develop characters, and layer complexity into the plot. With short stories I enjoy the challenge of having to attain a laser focus on just the essential elements. Of late I’ve been experimenting with flash fiction of under a thousand words. I’ve also been trying out rarely used story structures: I just finished and submitted a story for an upcoming Final Twist anthology that uses a serial point of view structure I’ve only seen once before in Theodore Sturgeon’s Godbody.
Your Eva Baum novel was published in 2008 as “the first in a series.” It received great reviews. One reviewer said the book was better than sex! Will we ever see a second book? What has Eva been up to for the past decade?
There is a second Eva Baum novel written, but not yet edited or published. I particularly enjoy writing about Eva because I get to write her exploits in collaboration with my brilliant wife. While fans of Eva have had to wait for the next novel, Eva short stories have been appearing regularly in the Final Twist anthologies. I’m extremely happy with the way Eva has developed in the short stories, but we’re going to have to get the next novel out there because it contains some startling and dramatic changes in her life.
In addition to the short story singles shared above, you can find Mark’s stories in these anthologies from The Final Twist:
One last question – who is the love of your life?
My wife, Charlotte, but I would vastly prefer she stop quoting that review about my writing being better than sex.
On that note, feel free to use the comments to ask your own questions of Mark H. Phillips.
Today’s question for our readers: When Is Severe Biblioholism a Bad Thing?
Because I thought I knew Ms. Jane Sweet, I interviewed her without completing my usual background research. Shame on me! I went to her websites after the interview to pick up a bit of bio info for this introduction and learned all sorts of things I could have asked about. For example, Ms. Sweet is currently at work on a Victorian historical romance trilogy, a romantic suspense novel, a WWII novel, a sci-fi/fantasy novella, and a children’s book. She has published short stories and magazine articles, but counts poetry and songwriting among her most favorite things. Poetry and song writing? Pseudonyms?
I will have more questions for Ms. Sweet in the comments and hope she checks in to answer. Feel free to ask your own questions, as well.
I did know about her writing awards and started our conversation there. You may be The Final Twist’s most decorated writer. Tell us about your awards.
Yes, I’ve been really fortunate in the two awards I’ve received: The first was for “Night Vision” (First Place in the 2015 Writer’s Digest Fiction Contest, Thriller Category), and the second one was for “White Rabbit“ (Honorable Mention in the Saturday Evening Post’s 2017 Great American Fiction Contest).
Both made me extremely proud because I had to reach outside my comfort zone and my preferred genre of romantic suspense. Night Vision validated me as a writer. It’s hard to believe, but “Night Vision” was my first attempt at writing a short story! I’d written poetry, novels, news articles, even screenplays, but I had always shied away from short stories. Why? As my fellow writers and critique partners will tell you, I tend to overwrite (just a tad, mind you). I loved the conciseness of poems, and I couldn’t imagine writing fiction in under 8,000 words. Especially since it had to contain a mystery and hopefully a murder! I loved watching murder mysteries on TV and reading them by the armload, but writing one? No way. Without the encouragement and honing I received from The Final Twist, I would never have attempted it. An American sniper in Vietnam? Believe me, I was astounded it turned out as well as it did, and that’s why it will always be near and dear to my heart.
You worked in law for a while and then education. You wrote many stories, and even novels, while teaching, but didn’t get serious about publishing until after you retired. Why did you wait?
During my years working in law firms, I was actually involved more in writing words and lyrics to songs. Sometimes, my music was the only thing that kept me sane, working full time (plus overtime) and raising a son on my own. Then, when I volunteered at a local library to teach English to adults from other countries, I fell in love with teaching. I took the upper level courses required for a certification in English and English as a Second Language, and taught high school for the next eight years. I wrote little during that time because (I quickly realized) teaching is 24/7. Even “summers off” never really materialized, because that’s when we had to take continuing education classes of our own. I was overjoyed when I was able to retire. It meant time to stare out the window and write in my head – I’m a pantser (big time). I often write better with a deadline to motivate me, but I still want that time to write in my head.
You are a member of multiple writing groups. What draws you to these organizations?
I’ve been with The Final Twist for five years, and my Thursday night critique group (WriteMinded) the same amount of time. I remember I was so shy about sharing my writing, my goddaughter had to take me kicking and screaming to both writing groups, and I’m so glad she did! I can’t stress what a difference the ideas and tough love I received from both groups made in my writing. Serious writers need to get off their duffs and find a group that fits them. I used to think I needed to join a romance group, but the two groups I tried just weren’t for me. Like I said, when you get outside your comfort zone, there’s no telling what you can do! The Final Twist and WriteMinded exposed me to the pros and cons of different genres, and with publishing and technology constantly changing, you need the sharing of information and tips just to keep up. It may take a while to get used to a critique group’s brutal honesty, but it’s because they want what you’ve written to be the very best it can be. Once you understand that, you’re good to go. If not for my writers’ groups, I would never have had the courage to blog or stand up in front of my fellow writers and present something on writing! One of the many reasons I admire Hemingway (not my cat, the writer) is what he said one time about writing is easy – you just sit down at the typewriter and bleed.
In addition to your award winning short stories, you’ve penned a few novels. Do you follow the same process for the two forms?
In writing poetry, short stories, and novels, I’ve found that the piece dictates the length. I write until it’s finished. Sometimes, it’s a novella. Sometimes, a trilogy. I never know, and I do tend to overwrite (just a tad, mind you). I wrote a poem years ago that morphed into a novella, and three years ago, I wrote a paragraph that turned into a short story that grew into a novel that ended up a trilogy. I know, you plotters are listening with varying degrees of fear and trembling, but the same thing can happen when you plot the entire short story or novel. Once you get it together, it may or may not be finished. I applaud Stephen King, who said if you already know the ending and you lay the whole thing out, where’s the fun in that? Life isn’t color-coded.
Ms. Sweet’s short stories are available in Denizens of the Dark, Menu for Mayhem, Every Beast Has a Secret, and Chosen by the Writers.
Today’s Question for our readers: What is your favorite opening line of any story?
Join us tomorrow when I interview Mark H. Phillips.
I recently sat down to chat with Natasha Storfer, self-professed story-junky and short story writer. Here’s what I learned.
I heard you have a technical or science degree and worked in a technical field. Many of your stories inhabit fantastical worlds. Is it fun for your scientific mind to go there?
My Industrial Distribution degree is a hybrid of business and engineering. I started off in the engineering department of a biotech company that synthesized small bits of DNA used for medical research. The technology and people involved fascinated me. Creativity plays a huge role in developing innovations, and I was surrounded by innovators. But, I prefer to create without the boundaries/limitations of science. Or at least bend them in fun ways. Science helps us understand ways to open the box and the volume it fills, but writing allows you to create a box that contains a unique universe limited only by imagination.
You are the sole author of “Mr. McKraken”, your story in Menu for Mayhem. In previous anthologies, you submitted stories jointly penned with co-author Becky Hogeland. Do you prefer writing alone or with a partner?
They both have advantages. A partner comes with accountability and helped me write while working through feelings of inadequacy. A good partner balances talents you struggle with and allows you return the favor. It can be a great way to learn from each other and motivate work. But it can be tricky to align busy schedules, which is why my more recent stories (“Big Bad Wolfe”, “Mr. McKraken”, and “Doppelganger”) were created alone.
No story of mine is written truly alone, though. I have an amazing critique group and lovely beta readers who are kind enough to be brutally honest.
You are the creator of one of our most popular participation presentations – Flash Fiction Writing, which was followed up by one of our most popular blog posts. Have you considered making that an annual event?
That blog was fun! I used it as a springboard on my own blog and enjoy the way flash fiction hones words to the core of a story. I see a yearly reminder of the power of each word as a way to sharpen our tools as writers. I like the idea!
Today’s Question: How did you feel the first time your submission was read for a critique group? Every person who leaves a comment receives an entry in the drawing for a free copy of CHOSEN BY THE WRITERS.
Join us tomorrow when we meet the amazing Jane Sweet and learn about the awards she’s received.