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Other Penmonkeys

Your First Bradbury

For me, my first Bradbury was “The Veldt.” (Read the story here.)

It was seventh grade or so, and we first read the story and then watched the short film — if you aren’t familiar with the story, it tells the tale of a family of four where the parents are growing increasingly concerned about the power and even the reality of their house’s “nursery,” a virtual-reality Holodeck-style playroom. The children continue to set it to the veldt, in Africa, where hungry lions wait.

Is the room pure fantasy? Could it become real? Are those lions… hungry?

(Doubly awesome that the children are named Peter and Wendy.)

This story blew everything open for me.

It was my first taste of science-fiction, for one — okay, sure, I’d seen (and adored) Star Wars and Transformers and all the expected sci-fi of my youth. But none of it was mature, transgressive, nor did they carry the power intrinsic to the genre. They were fantasies of a sort. “The Veldt” was no such fantasy.

In fact, it was pretty damn scary.

And so, it was also my first taste of horror. Believe me when I tell you that “the Veldt” is a horror story at its core — oh, not the horror you might think of with chainsaws and underground monstrosities and insane alien gods from behind time and space, but it’s a scary story (especially to a seventh grader). Bradbury could write across genre like nobody else (and in that way remains very much an inspiration to me — his career was not one where he fell into a genre hole and remained trapped there for all time).

Finally, it was my first look of the short story as an art form. Bradbury says that if you want to learn how to write, learn how to write short stories first. It’s a good and interesting piece of advice and his short fiction is some of the best around even still. (You know how Bradbury wrote many of his early stories? Most writers start with an idea, but he started with titles. He cobbled together a list of titles, one after the other, and then went down the list one by one, writing a short story to go with each. Thus proving that you can write however the fuck you want to write, no rules, no laws, no preconceived notions, as long as you write.) The short story up until that point was not a thing I was really all that aware of.

I was a reader, yes, a voracious one, but “The Veldt” was the first door I opened beyond the somewhat childish reads I’d been handed to that point. It was my gateway drug to Robert McCammon and Stephen King, to Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, to most of the books on my shelves then and even now. And how appropriate for it to be “The Veldt” — a story about a room of fantasy that threatens to become real, a room that is itself a gateway.

I was inspired by Bradbury and many of my other inspirations were themselves inspired by Bradbury.

Even now as a writer I’m inspired by him, sometimes opening Zen In The Art Of Writing to read.

But “The Veldt.”

That was my first Bradbury.

What was yours?

Fantasy Fiction At The Fringe

I’m reading Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon right now and I’m loving the unholy fuck out of it. Arabic myth with a protagonist who’s a fat, old ghul hunter? Oh. Oh. Oh yeah.

(Needless to say, you should go and read it posthaste.)

It’s kind of scratching an itch I’d forgotten I had, which is for fantasy fiction that goes well beyond that Tolkeinist purview to be brave and bold and do something unexpected with the very notion of fantasy.

So, talk to me. Make some recommendations. What would I like? What fantasy is out there — now or from the past — that operates outside the comfort zone and does something new instead of regurgitating all the same old tropes and archetypes and hero-plot piffle?

Further: what do you want to see in fantasy that’s just never represented? What niches need filling?

Your Top Three Books Of The Year?

Let’s assume that now that the holidays have largely come and gone, folks have received e-readers aplenty. I don’t have data on this, but I’m guessing it’s true — I bet the Kindles were flying out of the Amazon warehouses like the whirring death-blades of Krull. (That’s right. A Krull reference. Suck on that, Internet.)

So. Seems like a good time to, before the new year rises out of the desert sands and opens its jagged maw to swallow us and digest us in a belly thick with temporal juices, revisit the books you read this year.

Your top three reads this year?

Doesn’t have to be books published in 2011.


Let The Carousel Of Pimpage Go ‘Round And ‘Round

Whew, sorry this post is late — was up in NYC yesterday joining my writing partner Lance at the WGA to give a talk about transmedia. Was a blasty-blast, but that means I didn’t manage to sling together a post for today. Don’t look at me like that. With those sad eyes. That quivering lip. That trembling .38 snubnose in your greasy paw.

Anyway, this past week, Internet Ubermeister John Scalzi said, “Hey, come here to parade your traditionally-published books, come here to parade your self-pub works, come here to tell us about your other awesome arts and crafts.” Awesome for him to open his blog that way. Here I’ve opened the circus of pimpage from time to time, and Scalzi’s posts reminded me — hey, I have not done that in a while.

So, here we go. Just in time for the (un)holy daze of the holidays.

We’ll toss it all into one big mash —

Pimp whatever you want.

Book of any published pedigree, comic, toys, ARG, blog, Tumblr devoted to your mustache, anything and anything that can be pimped should be pimped.

Further, don’t think you have to pimp your work. The true Christmas spirit is pimping the work of someone else. Call out things you love by people you respect and tell us how to procure them.

Most important — pimping needs you to answer that “why” question. Don’t just say I WROTE BOOK HERE LINK NNGGHH — what were you, raised in a blog-barn? Sell us on it, by gum and by golly.

Now go forth! And share thee well.

The Five, By Robert McCammon

THE FIVE is Robert McCammon’s messiest, strangest work of fiction.

That may not sound like a good thing.

You’d be wrong.

See, this is a novel about the last days of a hardscrabble indie rock band — the titular “The Five” — and the horror they endure at the hands of a schizo sniper, a horror that ultimately brings them together before properly setting them apart. Contained within the story is this ghostly vein of the supernatural, a delicate component of good versus evil that never shows its full face, that always remains hidden in the margins of shadow that McCammon paints.

So, when I say “messy” and “strange,” I mean it in the truest rock-and-roll sense. Think if you will of the The White Stripes. Or The Doors. Or Jimi Hendrix. Or late Beatles. Or Sleater-Kinney. Or any garage band playing music that isn’t about perfection but about what lies beyond and within each note — the messy thump of a bass drum, the fuzz of a grinding guitar, the trippy vertigo strains of an organ. We’re not talking the measured bleeps and blips of pop music: we’re talking about the unkempt margins of rock-and-motherfucking-roll, son.

I don’t know how McCammon does it, but both the story and the execution of that story mimic that kind of garage band rock. It’s loose and messy, it deviates from expected courses, it escalates just when you think it’s going to ease off and eases off just when you think it’s going to escalate, it’s trippy and slippery. Above all else, it offers a kind of genius from a storyteller who has in my mind achieved a mode of transcendence — here, then, is McCammon as storytelling Bodhisattva, staying around this crass publishing arena to show the rest of his what it’s like to write from the heart and make it count.

Another way of thinking about it is by talking about James Joyce. Weird, I know, but bear with me: if you read Joyce’s work, his fiction doesn’t become more buttoned-up — it gets bigger, broader, more personal, and certainly weirder. Even comparing PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN with ULYSSES is a fascinating exercise: the first fairly lean, the second similar but with a far greater storyworld. ULYSSES shows Joyce beyond the top of his game — he’s climbed the ladder, gotten to the top, and kicked it down behind him — and reveals an ultimate expression of the novel. He’s not afraid to deviate, either. He wanders down alleys you didn’t even know where there, with Leopold Bloom as our vehicle through the mundane chaos, the heroic normalcy of an everyman’s day.

(Let’s not talk about FINNEGAN’S WAKE right now.)


That’s a wacky statement. I know. But I think it’s true. This tale of “The Five” — Nomad, Ariel, Mike, Terry, and Berke — takes those same trips down dark alleys, concerning itself less with a mechanical thriller-slash-horror plot and more with the nature of these characters and the power and madness of rock-n’-roll in this day and age. This is actually marketed as a horror novel, and… it is, I guess, but only barely. That’s not to say it’s not scary. It’s rough stuff at times. But again the supernatural component, while present, is barely there — a stroke of subtlety rather than overt paranormality.

I’ll be honest. I wasn’t sure about the book for the first… 20, 30 pages. But then you slip into the vibe of it and it reveals itself. Soon your heart’s thumping like a kick-drum.

If I had one complaint it’s that early on McCammon seemed more interested in describing the technical beats of the music as it played — problematic for a guy like me who has the musical inclination of a cantaloupe. (Confession: I once played the drums. Second confession: I probably wasn’t very good.) But eventually he moves away from that and describes the music in cleaner, more poetic beats — paving the way to let you know how the music’s supposed to feel rather than the rote mechanics of how it’s played. It conjures to mind that this is a novel with the potential for transmedia extensions, if only in the form of us getting to hear the music of “The Five.”

Anyway. Point being, I recommend it. Two drumsticks thrust up and twirling. It’s a powerful, profound, trippy novel that’s troubling and unsettling throughout. This isn’t like anything else McCammon has ever done — again, it’s far fuzzier at the margins. But Stephen King was right to call it “full of rock and roll energy.” It isn’t McCammon’s easiest read. But, ULYSSES isn’t an easy read, either. Even still, both novels are some of the best of the form.

The caveat applies here that McCammon is easily my foremost “totem spirit” in terms of writers who influenced me. The guy’s one of my literary heroes and it’s nice to see him not just working, but at the top of his game. I’m looking cuh-razy forward to THE PROVIDENCE RIDER and whatever horror novel he’s got after that. (I still need to see if I can get my hands on his new WOLF’S HOUR stories, though. Dangit.)

All right, cats and kittens.

Your turn.

Recommend a book.

And go read THE FIVE while you’re at it.

Your Own Shelf Of Writing Advice

By now, you know the story: blah blah blah, CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY is out, it’s now available in Kindle and Nook and PDF and, should you choose not to procure it, it will be available as a manuscript duct-taped through a brick and thrown through your front window.

I kid, I kid.

Seriously, though, it gets me thinking about other books of writing advice. I never understood writers who shirk writing advice because I’ve always found it so useful. I also don’t really grok those who absorb so much advice but then never actually… ohh, I dunno, put pen to paper because whenever I read great writing advice, all it makes me want to do is take what I learned and put it into play. Like reading the Kama Sutra for the first time. “Sun-Burned Donkey On Ravenna’s Porch? Upward Tilting Samsara With A Side Of Bhel Puri? Monkey Steal The Plums? I want to do all of these right now!”

Here’s the writing advice that lives on my shelf:



Stephen King’s ON WRITING.

Robert McKee, STORY.

Elements of Fiction Writing: CONFLICT, ACTION & SUSPENSE.



Blake Snyder, SAVE THE CAT!


I’ve got other stuff, too — some stuff about writing horror (DARK THOUGHTS: ON WRITING), lots of grammar books (GRAMMAR GIRL, EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES).

Bradbury’s book is cool — lots of personal tales, very bite-sized stuff, a book of wildly-roving advice. I like the way he wrote many of his original stories: he penned a list of cool titles, then one by one wrote stories to go with ’em. King’s book is pretty standard, and a truly great book — it was one of those books though that got me on some good habits and some bad ones. McKee’s story is nice enough, and there’s some valuable information, but the book is way too long for what it’s trying to tell you, and at times feels soulless. Epstein and Snyder show you the formulas that persist in film and television, and add new twists to those formulas.

I love what other authors have to say about the writing process. I lean toward advice that’s equal parts philosophical and practical and that lists into “hard-ass” territory, but then again, you already knew that: it’s ideally what you read here at terribleminds. I find it motivating. Thought-provoking. Never enervating.

How about you? What books of advice do you have on your shelves? Why are they there? Any books you didn’t like? Feel free to extend this out to blogs, too. I’m curious: where do you get your advice, and why?