BOOK REVIEW: “The King In Yellow” By Robert W. Chambers

The King in Yellow is a book of short stories by American writer Robert W. Chambers, first published by F. Tennyson Neely in 1895. The book is named after a play with the same title which recurs as a motif through some of the stories. The first half of the book features highly esteemed weird stories, and the book has been described by critics such as E. F. Bleiler, S. T. Joshi and T. E. D. Klein as a classic in the field of the supernatural. There are ten stories, the first four of which (“The Repairer of Reputations”, “The Mask”, “In the Court of the Dragon”, and “The Yellow Sign”) mention The King in Yellow, a forbidden play which induces despair or madness in those who read it.

 

I recently borrowed an audio book of The King in Yellow (support your local library!) as part of my Halloween reading list. I’d heard so much about it, and how it inspired many other works of horror I enjoy. I felt like Halloween season was the right time to check it out.

Unfortunately, I have mixed feelings about it.

king_aceI’ve never read (or listened to) a book that I was so conflicted about. I’m a big fan of H.P. Lovecraft and early weird fiction from the turn of the 20th century. I also enjoy hoity-toity literature with complex prose, so The King in Yellow should be right up my alley.

Here’s the thing: I loved the first half of the book. It was great! The stories weave semi-related tales of dread and supernatural menace, interspersing lines from the frightening play that is the common thread between them.

The second half of the book is what lost me. Chambers totally changes gears and spins tales about bourgeoisie life in wartime France. This portion of the book supposedly “evokes thematic feelings of dread”, but if they are in there, I couldn’t find them. There are few if any references to the King, and a thematic shift from horror to romance and longing. I kept waiting for something to tie the second half back to the first, but it never happened (the ending arguably has a call back to the first story, but its weak). The prose and language remains excellent, but begins to ramble and turn purple, eschewing story-telling for overly dramatic description. I was disappointed since I enjoyed the first half so much.

Can I recommend this book? Sort of.

If you’re a fan of “cosmic horror” (H.P. Lovecraft, Weird Tales) or video games like Bloodborne and Dark Souls then the first half of The King in Yellow is in your wheelhouse. “The Repairer of Reputations” up through “The Yellow Sign” along with “The Prophet’s Paradise” are must reads. Everything else can be ignored, especially the final three installments that begin with “The Street of the First Shell”. Fortunately, the nature of the book (short stories) allows it to be consumed this way.

I can see how portions of Chambers’ work inspired so many future writers and artists. The King in Yellow was certainly a groundbreaking work for its time, and portions of it still hold up today.

WHAT I LIKED:

  • Initial quartet of stories are excellent works of classic horror
  • Fanciful, engaging prose
  • Themes of madness and existential dread

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

  • Inconsistent themes in latter half of book
  • Latter stories are just American bohemians bemoaning their upper-middle class lifestyle while in Paris. Extremely boring.
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100 Followers

bob's burgers tina

My blog reached 100 followers last night, and I want to celebrate that. Hooray!

I’m always particularly excited when I hit a milestone here, since everyone that follows me is always so engaged. The conversations I have with people on WordPress about writing, publishing, and books are always more insightful than on other social media platforms.

Here’s to you all, because you rock!

 

Writing Tip: Never Pay Submission Fees

image of wallet

Today’s post is brought to you by the letter S. Or more specifically💲.

I’m preparing to submit another round of short fiction, and noticed quite a few “start up” magazines (especially on the gross-but-necessary Facebook) are charging submission fees. This isn’t cool, and I’ll try to explain why without it turning into a rant.

Suffice to say, you should never pay anyone to read your writing.

Submission Fees

Are bull$h*t.

Also known as “reading fees”, many literary magazines and journals claim they need these to cover production costs or to pay their editors/slush readers. You should never submit your work to a magazine that is asking for a reading fee, and here are a couple reasons why.

🎩 ::puts on curmudgeon-y businessman hat:: 🎩

  • It’s not your problem if they operate at a loss.
    • Many of these tiny journals are passion projects. Nonetheless, they probably get way more submissions than they can or will accept. Lit mags have notoriously low acceptance rates, and that means you’re subsidizing someone else’s creative endeavors for them to potentially read one sentence (if any) of a story and chuck it in the trash. If you DO get accepted and published, you likely won’t get any payment.
    • Most writers aren’t rolling in dough. You need to save money for more important things involving your own work
  • You don’t know their readership or margins
    • Often they ask for a fee, but either don’t pay the accepted authors or pay them in token copies
    • Sometimes the journals are “online only” which means their overhead costs could be next-to-nothing
    • If they ARE selling the magazine, you’re paying them to take your product (writing), and then make money off of it, essentially “double-dipping”.
  • The project may never happen
    • Not all ideas come to fruition. I like to believe people are good, but there are plenty of scammers out there who prey on idealistic writers and disappear without ever creating a journal due to “circumstances beyond their control”, but by the way “no refunds”.

I’m not saying all literary journals should be operating at a loss, but the legitimate ones that you see on Duotrope and Submission Grinder are usually stable enough to accept work without charging, even if they don’t have enough of a budget to pay the accepted authors. They understand that writers are providing their hard work for either a token payment, or exposure to a wider audience.

In my opinion, “Pay to Play” is never an acceptable model.

Exception: Contests

Here’s where I contradict myself.

If a writing contest is requesting a submission fee, because it intends to pay a cash prize to the winner, then a SMALL payment is usually OK. You should still do some research and only enter legitimate contests that have been around for a while. You can usually spot sketchy ones:

  • They’re “annual” but this is the first year they exist
  • The fees are much higher than the final collected pay out to the winner
  • There is little-to-no information or backing, other than an address to send money and writing to

I know some authors who have hard & fast rules about never giving their writing away. I don’t feel I’m at that level yet, so I’m open to opportunities that don’t involve direct payment. However, I will never pay money to either submit (or be published), and I’d encourage you to never do that either.

The entire reason publishers and magazines exist is to build a readership by selectively publishing the work of authors they feel deserve merit. It’s not our job to keep them in business.

That’s what readers are for.

 

Become a Better Writer for Under $20

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How many times have you seen someone selling you a course or some other product on the internet that claims it will make you a better writer, or purchase a book that can supposedly help you get published, only to have it contain nebulous tips like “practice writing every day”, “be persistent”, and “create great stories”? Or worse, corporate buzz like “grow your brand”.

I really hate these things, and they seem to be proliferating across the internet as people try to take advantage of hungry writers.

In an attempt to subvert that which I do not care for, I’m creating this post. It’s a list of 5 things that should cost you under $20 total (in fact, probably under $10 if you’re not a pen snob like me) and will absolutely make you a better writer.

Here they are in no particular order, as pictured above.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White

This is the book if you want to improve your craft. The gold standard since around 1919, its beauty lies in simplicity. It provides straightforward, common-sense rules and style suggestions for writing the English language. Plus, clear examples of each rule so they are easy to understand. It’s quite short and easy to reference whenever you need it.

Buy it in paperback. It’s small enough to fit in your pocket if you don’t wear tight pants. My copy (pictured) is a tapestry of margin notes, dog-eared pages, and highlighter fluid. I own a bunch of writing references, but this is the one I use 97% of the time.

Cost: $5 to $10 depending on the retailer.

A Pen

People tell me they can be mightier than swords. Get one. Two if you’re prone to losing things.

Cost: $1 to $500 if you’re rich and crazy, but you’re a writer, so you’re probably just crazy.

Index Cards

Use the pen to write on these. Write notes, edits, even alternate plots and character bios. The beauty of index cards is you can re-arrange and lay them out. I’m a very visual person, and being able to “re-structure” a story by using these like Flashcards, or simply compare alternate ideas to what’s on my screen. If you have Scrivener you can type them into its “index card” system later. There are a million things writers can do with index cards, and stacks are cheap.

Cost: $1-4 depending on retailer

Notebook

Buy one and keep it with you, because inspiration shows up at the most inconvenient times. If you splurge on a pretentious one cough…Moleskine…cough they have a handy little pocket in the back where you can stash some index cards for easy access.

Cost: $1 for some Mead spiral-bound or Lisa Frank glittery unicorn action, up to $25 for the really overpriced ones that people make Youtube videos about.

Highlighter

I’m one of those people who highlights and makes margin notes in my books. Some people feel that is sacrilege. I disagree, because highlighting and writing notes is a sign of critical reading. Writers are constantly told to read, but reading critically will help you improve much faster. On top of that, I read a lot of books and I can’t possibly remember all the things I like about them them. The Kindle has a lovely “highlight” feature, but when it comes to ink on paper, I leave a yellow trail in my wake like a slug.

Cost: $1 to $1 (seriously, just buy these at the dollar store).

So there you have it. A kit for less than twenty bucks that is guaranteed to help you improve as long as you use all the tools it contains. It won’t help you “build a platform”, but it will help you with something far more important – your writing craft.

Writing Tip: Reasons to Join a Writer’s Group

image of a writer's group

Image credit: Lulu.com

I recently joined a writer’s group organized by my local indie bookstore. I felt like it would be a great opportunity to network with other nearby authors and get feedback on my work.

After some months and numerous critiques, I finally feel comfortable blogging about it and advising that writer’s groups are a great way to improve as an author.

Critiques

Each writer in my group has similar but different goals. The shared commonality is personal improvement. I can’t stress enough how quickly your writing can improve with constructive criticism from people who are engaged in the same difficult work as you. A writer’s group can provide a varied audience who are at the perfect “degree of separation” to provide honest feedback. They are more familiar with you than strangers on the internet, but have more distance than friends and family who might try to protect your feelings.

I’ve recently had a few short stories picked up for publication, and I directly attribute that success to the valuable critiques I received from my group.

Encouragement

Every writer’s path is different. What works for one author might not for another. There are no silver bullets, and that can be tough to accept. It’s good to have a tight knit group going through the same trials and tribulations with you. It provides understanding ears to gripe about rejections, and voices to celebrate your successes.

Insight

Writing and publishing is COMPLICATED. I’ve written about some of the most common publishing avenues available, and there are an overwhelming number of choices, services, potential scams, and opportunities across the landscape. Insight from active writers who are living this stuff alongside you is invaluable. A short conversation among a writer’s group will probably yield more insight than any paid “How to Publish” course you can find on the internet. The writer’s in my group are all at different stages, and everyone is able to provide useful tips and info to each other.

Love of Books

I’ve been turned on to new authors and books I’d have never known about, just by being around like-minded writer’s who are passionate about reading. It’s a wonderful social atmosphere to get suggestions, or have fun and engaging conversations about books.

For all the reason’s above (and more) I highly recommend writers of any level seek out a group. Keep in mind they are not without challenges! I believe anytime a group of creative people get together, there will be up’s and downs. I would also strongly encourage you to join an in-person group, rather than one on the internet. Writing is a solitary exercise, and the face-to-face interaction, along with the relationships you’ll build with other local writers are worth the time and effort.

Are you a member of a writer’s group? If so, what has your experience been like?

Writing Fantasy Is Hard

VHS box art for "The Iron Master"

“The Iron Master” VHS box art, aka “Every sword & sorcery cover ever”

Writing fantasy stories is tough work.

I’ve been slowly grinding out a fantasy/horror novel over the past year, and I have a whole new respect for authors of the genre.

I’ve always loved fantasy novels, especially the “sword&sorcery” sub-genre, but they are definitely outside my wheelhouse when it comes to writing. I stick almost exclusively to horror and weird speculative stories, but I wanted to venture outside my comfort-zone and dip my toes in the shimmering magical pool.

Here’s a few things I’ve learned.

World Building Sucks

“Sucks” might be kind of a strong word for it, but I find it frustrating. Sure, it’s really cool stretching your imagination to create all these fantastical places and things, but it’s also REALLY difficult! There are supernatural elements in horror, but they are often limited, and can be put into real world settings, like New Mexico or something. I vastly underestimated the amount of time and effort that goes into fantasy world building. Now I get why so many books rely on variations of time-tested tropes.

Names, Places, Names, and more Names…plus Dragons?

How do fantasy writers keep track of all this stuff? Character names, places, and magic systems. The number of things you need to record is mind-numbing. All novels require some level of research, but the nature of fantasy usually requires deep backstories, complex interactions between entire races, and “systems”. For the most part, other genres can safely assume things like gravity and physics are a given. Even Science fiction (at least the good kind) is grounded against certain rules, that provide a baseline to start against. TL;DR – If you write a fantasy novel, buy extra notebooks and Post-It’s.

Being Original is Difficult

Creating an original idea in 2017 is tough no matter what you write. We all have influences that shape our voice. Fantasy cliches and tropes are especially easy to spot though. As soon as “Orcs” or “Orks” show up, you’re already ripping off Tolkien. Kids who use magic? You might be treading on Harry Potter’s toes. The wide berth of stories and subjects in just the last five decades speak to both the popularity of the genre, along with the extraordinary challenges inherent in coming up with something unique.

 

I’m determined to finish my fantasy book, because I love the characters and the story, but my expectations have certainly been adjusted since I started the first draft. I have a newfound respect for fantasy novels and the people who write them.

 

You Don’t Need an MFA to Be a Writer

image of a typewriter

image credit: College of New Rochelle

I’ve been reading a number of articles and blog posts recently about whether writers should get an MFA. Sarah Werner even covered it on the latest episode of the Write Now podcast. Must be back-to-school fever.

I’m in the camp that believes the only education you need to be a writer is a degree from “The School of Life”.

Irony alert: I have an (undergraduate) degree in English with a concentration in Creative Writing.

Before we go any further, let me say I’m a proponent of education, both formal and self-driven. I believe a high school diploma and undergraduate courses in English can provide a strong foundation and wider exposure to both classic and modern literature. I’m extremely grateful for the wonderful teachers and professors I had throughout my education who gave me feedback, tough critiques, and encouragement.

With that said, do y’all REALLY need a Masters in this? Probably not.

Here’s a few reasons why –

  • Cost: MFA’s can be expensive. Like, up to $100,000. That’s a lot of debt for no guarantee of a successful career in a brutally competitive field. For that kind of money you’d be better off buying a laptop and a nice van to live out of while you travel the country as a starving artist. Being miserably indebted makes life tough, and a tougher life often leads to less writing time as you try to pay your bills.

 

  • Voice: There is no factual evidence that MFA programs nurture authors to cultivate a unique voice. In fact, there has been a lot of criticism lately that they’ve begun to actually homogenize writers. Don’t take my word for it. Go read this great (but oh so lengthy) article by The Atlantic. They’re one of the hoity-est of hoity toity liberal magazines, so I trust them to criticize Masters programs.

 

  • Burn Out: I read somewhere that there’s “no one more bitter than a grad school drop-out.” Intensive writing and workshops can be great, but you run the risk of burning yourself out. Even in low-residency programs. Plus, if you’re the type of person who doesn’t handle rejection well, I’d have to guess it stings more to receive rejection letters if they pile up next to a $75,000 piece of paper that claims it made you great.

 

  • The Unwashed Low-Brow Masses of The American Readership: Let me take a moment to pick on the country I love so dearly. Americans don’t read much anymore. Google it. There are numerous studies citing how few books we are reading these days, and when we do, it’s NOT literary fiction. Balk all you want, but MFA holders often hold certain views and a level of pretension. They also die a little inside every time something like Fifty Shades of Grey lights up the best seller charts. It’s why forum threads discussing “literature versus genre fiction” are always such nasty things. TL;DR – Writing literary fiction is a tough road to an audience.

Before you think I’m just slamming MFA’s because I’m poor or bad at standardized tests, let me say I think there IS a reason to get one. If you intend to have a career in academia and teach others how to write, read critically, and critique then you should absolutely have a Masters degree (MFA, or MA). From there, by all means write as many dissertations and chapbooks as you please.

However, if you’re like most “aspiring authors” or even published authors that I’ve met in my travels, you probably write some type of genre fiction or you’re writing “Lit Fic” with the intention of selling it to a mass market. In either case, I don’t think you should ever be concerned or discouraged if you don’t have an MFA, because you don’t need one to accomplish those goals.

You just need paper, ink, and a whole lot of time and determination.