Book Review: “the Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town” by Gregory Miller

The Uncanny Valley…

… is a macabre serenade to a small town that may or may not exist, peopled with alive and dead denizens who wander about the hills and houses with creepy fluidity. Told by individual inhabitants, the stories recount tales of disappearing dead deer, enchanted gardens, invisible killer dogs, and rattlesnakes that fall from the sky; each contribution adds to a composite portrait that skitters between eerie, ghoulish, and poignant. Miller is a master storyteller, clearly delighting in his mischievous creations.

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I love horror anthologies. Something about collections of short stories just feels right to me when I delve into the genre.

That said, I just finished The Uncanny Valley: Tales from a Lost Town by Gregory Miller, and I can definitely recommend it to fans of the genre who are looking for some lighter horror fare.

The book takes a a unique approach, posing as a documented collection of essays submitted to an NPR contest. The entries were supposedly written by the residents of a strange Pennsylvania town named Uncanny Valley. As the book progresses, what begin as quirky tales become increasingly ominous and supernatural.

Most of the letters (stories) range between 2-6 pages, and are told in different narrative voices by each of the residents. This works to varying effect, and like all anthologies, some entries are better than others. However, overall Miller does a good job weaving so many tales from so many different perspectives. He doesn’t stray too far down the path of extreme horror or gore, and many of the stories are more akin to Twilight Zone than Tales from The Crypt so I think this would be a great series for younger horror fans. I also enjoyed the illustrations by John Randall York, which reminded me of Scary Stories to Tell in The Dark (my first true horror anthology).

If you’re looking for some satisfying, light horror that you can read in short sessions, then Uncanny Valley is definitely worth checking out.

What I Liked:

  • Interesting concept for an anthology
  • Varying narrative voices
  • Great illustrations

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Some stories were much stronger than others
  • I wanted certain entries to last longer

Writing In Notebooks

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I plot my stories.

I plot my stories and novels, and for some reason I cannot do that effectively on a computer.

I’ve tried EvernoteGoogle Keep, and different features in Scrivener where most of the stories end up taking shape. The only place that works for me is an old fashioned notebook.

Collecting Ideas

It seems like a no-brainer that I would use voice notes or an app to quickly capture ideas for stories as they come to me, but for whatever reason, I work better when I jot them into a notebook. The act of physically writing the ideas out seems to help my brain digest and play with them. Maybe because it’s a slower and more deliberate process than typing? All I know is that I end up with a page of ideas that are more thorough and fully formed than when I try typing bulleted lists into a phone.

Plotting Stories

I also plot stories out in notebooks. Admittedly, plotting in a notebook is more arduous than in a program like Scrivener, but it seems to have the same benefits I mentioned above when I’m scratching down ideas. I’m able to put more thought into the process as I draft; full of margin notes and arrows. Many a plot hole has been preemptively squashed in a notebook after they escaped from “Idea Land”. This can be very time consuming, so ultimately, I end up putting my full final  (they are NEVER final) plot outlines into Scrivener where I can manipulate and edit them.

Object Permanence

There’s also something satisfying about having a physical thing to pick up and look back through ideas after I’ve given myself some distance from them. Sometimes to show me how terrible they were, but often to re-visit them and scratch in some new notes or revise. Again, you can do this with your laptop, phone, or a stack of bar napkins, but notebooks and journals just feel nice, and they’re convenient to keep on a shelf, in a backpack, or in your car.

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I use Piccadilly notebooks because I like the idea of Moleskin notebooks, but not the price. Plus, having that little rear pocket to stash some 3×5 index cards is useful for quick plotting and scene edits.

Do you utilize a notebook or journal in your writing process? Or maybe just a really nice roll of paper towels? Let me know down in the comments!

Writing Tip: How To Use Commas

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Oh, the comma.

Writers fret over punctuation, and there are few tools we use more than our curvy little pal. I’ve been accused more than once of overusing commas. I refer to the process as “Shatner-izing” my writing. It gives, it, more, dramatic, effect!

Star Fleet captains aside, here are some basic rules to live by when using (or not using) commas in your writing. For this post, the theme will be “aliens”.

Use Commas to Separate Elements

“The alien fired the laser, laughed, and kicked the piles of dust that were once humans.”

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Commas can be used to separate lists of elements that could potentially confuse a sentence, or just read poorly if they are separate actions that occur in sequence. The last comma in the sentence is known as a serial comma or an Oxford comma if you want to get all fancy and British about it. The general rule is a list of three or four, but there could be more if you want to get crazy.

Use Commas with Coordinating Conjunctions

I’m quite proud of the subtle segue I made in that last sentence up there. Commas can also be used with conjunctions to connect independent clauses

“The first saucer was destroyed, but more ships were on the way.”

Destruction may be inevitable, but at least our conjunctions are all sorted out.

Sidebar: The conjunction and is the one I always get crap about from editors and other writers. Given the pacing and structure of the sentence the comma isn’t always needed, but I tend to throw them in anyway. The rule is err on the side of commas. It may unnecessary, but it’s NEVER wrong.

Use Commas for Introductions

Commas are great for adding intro elements to a sentence. These can add flair, especially to action sequences (which require a minimum 37 pieces of flair).

“His energy sword crackling, the Venutian barbarian began his berserker rage!”

(I tossed some alliteration in there just because.)

Use Commas for Additional Information

If you want to add some additional information, or flavor text, that wouldn’t otherwise change your sentence, you can bust it in there between a pair of commas.

“The Martian commander, overseer of the armada, gave the signal to attack.”

 

I hope this advice was helpful. If so, here are some of my other Writing Tip posts.

Using Adverbs

How to Use Story Beats

Writing Around A Busy Schedule

Book Review: “Good As Gone” by Amy Gentry

Thirteen-year-old Julie Whitaker was kidnapped from her bedroom in the middle of the night, witnessed only by her younger sister. Her family was shattered, but managed to stick together, hoping against hope that Julie is still alive. And then one night: the doorbell rings. A young woman who appears to be Julie is finally, miraculously, home safe. The family is ecstatic—but Anna, Julie’s mother, has whispers of doubts.  She hates to face them. She cannot avoid them. When she is contacted by a former detective turned private eye, she begins a torturous search for the truth about the woman she desperately hopes is her daughter. 

51r-+GWWHmLGood As Gone showed up under “New and Notable” in my Kindle Prime Reading, and I downloaded it since I occasionally branch out into other genres to mix things up. I don’t normally read suspense thrillers, but I enjoyed this one all the way through, despite a few flaws.

The story is well written, and moves between the protagonist, Anna Whitaker, and a few other characters. This is broken up between chapters, so it doesn’t get confusing, although toward the end of the story there is a lot of jumping around and “perspective shifts” which I won’t go into more detail on since it borders on spoilers. Suffice to say, I had to re-read a few pages to make sure I knew what was going on.

Gentry’s writing is solid, and she crafts a dark, believable tale that should satisfy fans of the genre and anyone looking for a gritty suspense story. It’s a quick read with very little filler, and only lagged briefly in a few spots. It was also refreshing that this appears to be a standalone novel, since so many thrillers are huge series.

What I Liked:

  • Strong story pacing, excellent characterization
  • Interesting perspective shifts
  • Complete story arc. No cliffhangers

What I Didn’t Like:

  • Perspective shifts became confusing at some points late in the story
  • A key subplot dragged a bit midway through
  • This piece of the publisher blurb that I initially spared you from. “Propulsive and suspenseful, Good as Gone will appeal to fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, and keep readers guessing until the final pages.” Makes me speculate they pressured the author into that title due to its similarity

50 Followers!

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Just a quick note.

This afternoon WordPress notified me that this blog has reached 50 followers. I am super excited about that.

When I started this blog a few months ago, I didn’t even know WordPress COULD have followers, let alone people who would actually read the stuff I put on here, and comment + share it to others.

THANK YOU to all my readers and followers!

In celebration of this milestone, I found the most ostentatious public domain balloon art I could. It kind of reminds me of those Lisa Frank stickers from the 1990’s. What with the butterfly and all…

Submitting to Literary Journals

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I’ve begun submitting work to literary journals.

As part of my exploration of the “hybrid author” model, and at the behest of my friend and co-conspirator Jeff Conolly , I’m sending off short stories and flash fiction to a number of literary magazines.

This is something I hadn’t considered, based on my own biases. The last time I submitted anything to a journal, it was the late 1990’s (yes, I’m dating myself here), and it was a painstaking process of stuffing envelopes and licking stamps. That was followed by months of waiting to receive a rejection form letter in the mail. Sounds great, right? You can see why I compartmentalized these things into the darkest recesses of my mind.

Enter: The Internet.

Literary journals are WAY different than I remember them. First, there are so many more around due to the advent of electronic publishing and “the web”. Second, it’s far easier to submit your work via email or the free site Submittable (which many of them use).

I have to admit I feel silly for not looking into this sooner. I should have known better than to assume they hadn’t evolved in twenty some odd years. Now my plan is to continue submitting shorter works in between writing my current full length novel(s).

Have you ever submitted work to a literary journal or magazine? I hope so, and I hope it was accepted! Let me know down in the comments. I’m interested to hear other writers experiences with them.

Self Publish, Traditional, or Hybrid?

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A question for all my fellow writers out there.

When the time comes to unleash your completed works into the world, how do you do it?

Are you taking the DIY route of self-publishing, with its steep learning curve and up-front costs? Or are you walking that traditional publishing road, fraught with long wait times and piles of rejection letters?

I ask because I’ve been reading articles like this one at Writer’s Digest about “hybrid publishing”. Most writers I speak with choose one path or the other, but it would seem the hybrid model has some advantages from both.

I’ve begun the process of submitting work to journals and other outlets (short stories, flash fiction) while continuing to write larger pieces that will either be self-published or queried. It seems like the stigma of being “one or the other” is slowly fading away, and I’m interested to see if one strategy pans out better than the other.

Does anyone else use a “hybrid model” for publishing their work? Do you take different publication routes for your individual projects, or try to stick solely to one strategy that works for you?

 

Author Influences

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Someone asked me who my writing influences were yesterday, and they were surprised by my answer.

If I had to list my Top 3, they’d be “in order of appearance”

  • Harlan Ellison
  • Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma Entertainment)
  • Zora Neal Hurston

Harlan is a master of dark and twisted writing. If you’re in the mood to feel gross and awful, go read I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. It delivers what it promises.

Lloyd is responsible for helping to create films like The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke ‘Em High. His movies with their over-the-top stories, violence, and social satire irreparably inspired/damaged me during my youth.

Zora is the curveball. She’s always the one who makes people say “Wait, who?”If you went to a public high school you’re probably familiar with Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s her most celebrated work, but there is more to her story than just one novel.  Author, notorious liar, political critic, and alleged voodoo initiate. She was heavily criticized by many for creating unapologetic writing. As a writer and a human being, she was fascinating.

Honorable mentions also include:

  • Stephen King (a master of horror)
  • Kurt Vonnegut (a, maybe THE?, master of satire)
  • Rob Zombie (hit or miss, but always with great aesthetic)

I find myself influenced by a variety of media. Books, movies, video games, and music all inform my writing and story telling in different ways.

Do you have author influences that are unexpected or others find surprising, and do you find other art & media besides books having an influence on your writing?

Let me know down in the comments. I’d love to hear about them!