Author Archives: dwbehrend

Reading is Fundamental

The next writing prompt from DIY MFA focuses on the directive to “Read with Purpose.” The DIY MFA approach encourages writers to develop their own reading lists organized into four areas:

  • Competitive Titles: Current books in your genre or with similar theme and/or subject matter.
  • Contextual Materials: This broad category incudes books read for research, related films, music, magazine articles, etc., as well as books or stories that use a technique or techniques you’re using in your own current work.
  • Contemporary Books: Books in your genre published within the last three years.
  • Classics: Those books in your genre and beyond that have stood the test of time to earn classic status.

So, the question for this prompt is simple: What’s on your reading list?

I’m still toying with a longer-term reading list that reflects all these categories and will help me best develop as a writer during the next few weeks and months. So, in the interest of keeping this post brief and manageable, I’ll just mention one title in each category.

Competitive: I’m currently working on a novel best described as pulp action-and-horror. This is the hardest category for me to nail down. I might take a look back at Peter Kline’s action-packed Ex-Heroes and the rest of that series that recounts the battle between a team of superheroes and the zombies that, once again, have taken over the planet at the expense of the living. These are really fun, compelling reads.

Contextual Materials: Much of the novel takes place on a mysterious and supposedly uninhabited island in the pacific. To get a sense of island evolution gone bonkers, I’ll look to the King Kong movies (including last year’s Kong: Skull Island, which has files on many of its mega-fauna right on its promotional website), and to get a better sense of the way islands spur evolution via isolation I’ll revisit David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo, a wonderful natural history book with fascinating case studies of island evolution. His description of komodo dragons feeding is one of the finest pieces of nature writing I’ve read. I’ve also been reading a variety of stuff online about CIA experiments with mind-altering drugs in the 1950s and 1960s. (Yes, that’s in there too!)

Contemporary Books: I’m currently reading a lot of short stories, including some pulp classics, as well as those from great recent anthologies of horror and weird writers that I admire, including The Grimscribe’s Puppets and Aickman’s Heirs. It is always instructive to see what successful current writers are doing. I also regularly listen to podcasts from Nightmare and Pseudopod on my long car commute.

Classics: While it’s not exactly pulpy action, I have long been meaning to read Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s sitting on my shelf right now. I am usually working on ideas for weird fiction or quiet horror, and I am sure this novel by a wonderful writer will be a master class in how it’s done.

The writing prompt also asks how we get our reading done, where do we fit it in, etc. The aforementioned podcasts allow me to “read” while driving, although I certainly prefer the printed (or electronic) page. In addition, I find some time late in the day and when I lie down for bed to read fiction. I also will occasionally get in a chapter or two or a short story on my lunch hour, depending on how my work day is playing out. Like most writers and readers, I really do wish I could devote even more time to reading. There’s so much great stuff out there.

It’s been a valuable exercise to think about my reading through the lens of the DIY MFA reading list approach. In general, my greatest challenge as a writer is to be organized and focused, not just chasing bright shiny objects at hyper speed until I get out of breath, collapse, recover and move on to the next tantalizing distraction.

I’m hopeful that taking a more methodical approach to my writing will help me take a more methodical approach to my reading as well.

And that’s it for now. Thanks for reading!

What Type(s) of Stories are Your Favorite?

The next DIY MFA prompt asks us to identify our favorite type of story and to look at recurring patterns in our own work. So…

…what’s my favorite story type? This is a harder question to answer than it might first appear, at least for me. One of my strengths as a reader and a writer – and oddly enough one of my greatest challenges – is that I really love a very wide variety of stories, genres, formats, etc.  One day I’m reading a graphic novel, the next it’s an old pulp story by Robert E. Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Then it’s on to a modern literary novel like The Virgin Suicides, then I’ll pick up an anthology of weird fiction or horror before switching over to nonfiction on science, history or biography.

So, I tend to read widely across fiction, nonfiction, genres, novels, short stories, etc., but not necessarily deeply within a genre. I’m a bit of a dilettante in that way. However, in the end I do notice two common threads throughout much of what I read – and what I write.

The first is that I still greatly enjoy the pulse-pounding, two-fisted action stuff with which I grew up. My earliest memories of reading beyond typical kid’s picture books are rooted in the comic books of the late 60s and early 70s. (“I was born in ’67, the year of Sergeant Pepper’s and Are You Experienced,” to quote Porcupine Tree.) My two older brothers both bought a lot of comics, so I had their collections to dip into. I then embraced characters like Doc Savage, Tarzan, Conan, etc., as well as epic fantasy like Lord of the Rings, the Thomas Covenant books and the like. Common throughout all these books is the struggle of good vs. evil, fast pacing (well parts of the Lord of the Rings maybe not so much), action, superhuman feats and powers, etc.

I still greatly enjoy this type of story, and I’m currently working on a novel that is in the pulp action-adventure and pseudoscience tradition, but with a good dose of horror mixed in, which brings me to my second thread – horror and weird fiction.

I have long enjoyed reading tales of terror and the supernatural, from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King to Edgar Allan Poe. King led me to Koontz and Barker and the great (and very underrated) McCammon in the late 80s and early 90s. For a time, I eagerly consumed many of the horror novels that were so popular in those years.

And then I stumbled onto Thomas Ligotti. This singular writer got under my skin and invaded my waking dreams like no other had before. Surreal and dream-like, his stories lingered in my mind and changed the way I looked at writing – and at the world. Bleak and pessimistic though his work is, I do not find that it depresses me. Rather, it is a bracing tonic against a world where too often we delude ourselves with illusions of meaning and purpose where none exists.

Ligotti, along with the classic authors and the late 20th century novelists mentioned above, got me to dig deeper into dark fiction. I discovered writers like T.E.D. Klein and had a renewed appreciation for the darker works of Lieber and Bradbury. I had long been a fan of the original Twilight Zone, which fit right in with these interests.

Not long after this deeper interest in horror developed, I picked up the massive short story anthology The Dark Descent. And that was when I discovered Robert Aickman, British author extraordinaire of what he dubbed his “strange stories,” odd tales where things are just a bit “off” in a way that is hard to pin down but certainly leaves an eerie, unsettling sensation on the reader.

All this eventually led me to the modern weird renaissance, with supremely talented writers like Laird Barron, Jon Padgett, Nathan Ballingrud, Livia Llewellyn, Brian Evenson, Paul Tremblay and many others who consistently put out excellent, compelling work.

So, how do these two threads reconcile? Can they intertwine and become one? Can pulp action heroes battle the forces of evil in a work of weird fiction? Of course, anything is possible, but it’s hard to imagine sustaining something like that. I’m currently working on a pulp action novel that incorporates horror elements – ancient beings a la Lovecraft, the eating of brains, etc. – but it’s hard to see this veering into the truly strange and off-putting territory of Ligotti or any of the writers I’ve mentioned above.

So for now, I think I will have to keep one foot in each camp. Even as I work on my pulpish novel, I’m regularly jotting down ideas about tears in the fabric of the universe that threaten to plunge us all into madness, or desperate people coming to terms with their end at the hands of brutal, unstoppable, unexplainable forces.

Perhaps one day I will come up with the perfect fusion of these two very different interests I have. In the meantime, I’ll just try to keep writing and covering both types of stories as best I can in my work.

Villains FTW

The DIY MFA writing prompts are starting to get more into the nuts and bolts of writing, which provides a great opportunity to really think about the craft of writing. It’s also very useful in helping to guide my current work in progress, a pulp action-horror novel that is just getting underway.

Prompt #7 looks at supporting character archetypes as outlined in the DIY MFA book. The list includes the villain, the love interest, the sidekick, the mentor and the fool. We’re asked which type of supporting character is your favorite and why.

For me, it’s very simple. The villain every time. My earliest story writing, way back when you could count my age on just over one hand, took the form of self-produced comic books. Now, these were far from masterpieces. Words and pictures were rudimentary at best (and boy the pictures really weren’t good). Character concepts sometimes made little if any intrinsic sense – such as Fif the Mailman, a vaguely heroic letter carrier with a taste for mayhem and violence. But one thing my early comic production taught me is that a story gains a lot from a good villain (or in this case more likely a silly but powerful villain).

With my reading roots in comic books, pulp novels like those starring Doc Savage and Tarzan, fantasy epics like the Lord of the Rings, I can’t imagine adventure fiction without some compelling villains. I later got into horror and weird fiction in a big way, and these too require interesting and powerful antagonists, even if they are something supernatural or even just vaguely eerie and threatening rather than traditional villains.

Of course, pulp and fantasy novels are rich treasure troves of the other types of supporting characters, and I certainly see an important role for them. In my current work in progress, the protagonist is a former special forces operative who now leads field operations for a team of soldiers and scientists combatting horrible supernatural threats to the planet. The team provides a great opportunity to include a sort of love interest and a couple of sidekicks, as well as a mentor in the team’s founder at headquarters.

As far as the villain in this story, well let’s just say he was involved in some very disturbing experiments involving humans decades ago and things only got worse over the years. In this action story, the lethal weapon that is the protagonist needs a very tough, driven and evil force of opposition. And that means crafting a good villain.

Can Resistance Lead to Good Writing?

The latest writing prompt from DIY MFA asks us to consider how we deal with resistance in our writing life and how it can sometimes lead to unexpectedly positive outcomes. Here’s my take.

Resistance, writer’s block, etc. These can be difficult subjects to tackle, as thinking about them too much can quickly become self-defeating. I have been writing fiction with some regularity for more than 15 years, and during that time I have gone through long periods where I gave up because I felt it was a losing battle. But something always kept nagging at me, telling me to get back it, to put fingers to keyboard and keep producing words – and not just the sort of PR and business writing I do at my day job.

When that inner voice keeps nagging at you to write, you better listen. I too have found that the resistance is rooted in fear. When I resist the urge to write, perhaps it’s because I’m afraid the idea I have will amount to nothing. Perhaps I think the concept is utterly unoriginal. Maybe because I’ve failed before, letting a potentially good novel peter out into nothingness, I’m afraid to try again.

But try again I must. I have always been intrigued by the writing advice I’ve seen in more than one place that if you feel resistance to an idea, or are afraid of exploring it, then that’s really the idea you should pursue. This may be particularly true when it comes to horror and weird fiction, where dark and disturbing subject matter is explored regularly.

In my case, I drafted a short story dealing with how one man is haunted by the loss of his wife and unborn child due to a complex, complicated pregnancy. The story goes to some very dark places that made it difficult to write. But I took that advice of confronting the uncomfortable and did what I consider some of my better work (alas no takers yet). I wrote the final scene in the story, where the protagonist must confront his past in a truly nightmarish situation, in a fever blur where words streamed onto the page in a way they rarely do.

If I had not fought that resistance, I never would have written this story. Whether it ever gets published or not, it is a very important story to me. I’m proud to have written it, and that certainly counts for something.

So don’t be afraid. Just write.

Best Practices Maybe, But Not For You

The next DIY MFA prompt asked us to talk about a writing “best practice” that just never worked for us. This was a tricky one for me, as I am constantly trying new approaches, drawing on a new how-to book, or whatever. I probably don’t try things long enough to know how well they really work. But here’s what I came up with on the Facebook group for DIY MFA.

I have never bought into the idea of creating lengthy character biographies, background files, etc. I need to make more efficient use of my time than that. I like to maybe jot down a paragraph or so about each significant character and keep a lot of other information in the back of my mind while I write. This gives me more flexibility, but more importantly, it gets me actually writing the story sooner.

What Fuels Creativity?

The fourth DIY MFA prompt asks us to consider what fuels are creativity. How do we get ideas? What helps us shake off the doldrums of an uncreative slump? It’s not a simple subject, and it can be difficult for us to understand our relationships with our own muses. But here’s a few thoughts I shared in response to the prompt.

The basic kernel of an idea can come from almost anywhere, just looking out the window and seeing a pattern in the sky, overhearing a snippet of strangers’ conversation or watching a movie and thinking “That’s interesting, but I could come up with something even more fun!”

For me, the real challenge is further developing those germs of ideas. That’s where the work comes in. Once I get moving, I find that the act of writing itself leads to a lot of additional ideas and directions that need to further developed and managed. The challenge is often keeping things moving and keeping them focused.

I also will read books and watch movies relevant to what I’m writing (that’s why I’ve recently been pulling out old Doc Savage books I got when I was a kid and rewatching the Indiana Jones movies). And I always listen to music while I write, as it just seems to give me more energy and stamina to keep going.

On a related note, I would recommend the free e-book A Course in Demonic Creativity: A Writer’s Guide to the Inner Genius by Matt Cardin to anyone who is trying to sort out their relationship with their personal muse, daemon, unconscious mind, call it what you will … This book is a great resource that provides practical guidance on how to get better in tune with the creative spirit. It also has great footnotes that can lead you to all sorts of interesting scholarly works about creativity, the unconscious mind, etc.

My Storytelling Superpower

The third DIY MFA prompt had us take a short online quiz to determine our “storytelling superpower.” This provides a glimpse at the types of stories you love reading, watching and writing. You can take the quiz here.

I took the quiz twice a couple weeks apart and got two different results. Initially I got the Protector, and then I got the Survivor.

It is pretty amazing how directly the Protector connects with my primary current work in progress. I am writing an action-adventure novel focused on an elite team of soldiers and scientists who battle odd and unusual threats to the world. It’s sort of like Doc Savage and his five sidekicks with a strong supernatural/horror element. This group has appeared in one short story, which you can read here if you enjoy that pulp action-adventure sort of thing. I’m now taking them book length.

Interestingly enough, though, the sort of superhero high adventure described as the Protector’s bread and butter is really just one type of writing I enjoy. In fact, my primary focus tends to be much darker and weirder, both in what I read and in what I write. I’m not sure which “superpower” would lead one to have an affinity for the works of writers like Robert Aickman, Thomas Ligotti, Brian Evenson, John Padgett and others writing in the strange realms of weird fiction. Is “Dark Dreamer” a superpower? How about “edge walker”?

At any rate, it’s a fun little quiz to take that gets you thinking about your approach to writing.