Writing

Book Review: Embers by Kenneth W. Cain

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Embers Kenneth W. Cain

Embers
by Kenneth W. Cain
Crystal Lake Publishing
March 2017
Purchase link
*** Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review *** 

“The Chamber” is the first story in this collection and is about Karl, someone who has done bad things but he’s trying to make amends. He was a Nazi in a concentration camp and says he was just following orders, but what he did continues to sicken him. There are corpses who come back to life, but the larger threat seems to be the fact that Karl’s post-traumatic stress disorder makes him unable to tell the past from the present, which has dire consequences for his family.

“Valerie’s Window” starts off with a girl, Valerie, who is scared of a nearby monster, trying not to be seen by it. Someone called Jasper has kept her as a sort of prisoner for some time under the guise of ‘protecting’ her and still has the nightmares that remind her of how she ended up here, abducted, in the first place–sadly, she’s not the only one who this has happened to. To say that this piece is full of despair and misery would be an understatement.

“A Window to Dream by” involves a guy, Seth, who finds himself attracted to a possibly Cthulu-inspired squid-woman of some kind in spite of the fact that he’s married and ends up being a tale of sexual obsession while “Each New Day Unknown” follows a scientific experiment mixed with some black magic gone haywire. Next up, “Under a Drift of Snows Lies Another World” revolves around a widowed man coming to grips with the loss of his wife, Claire, and recounting their far-from-perfect marriage with a twist.

“Blackbird’s Breath” has echoes of the previous story, also dealing with couples and loss of a wife, with a splash of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tell Tale Heart thrown in for good measure. Anne loved birds but Henry doesn’t share her sentiments. At one point, he has to tend to an injured bird and all I will say is that for readers who have difficulties with animal cruelty, it’s going to be a hard one to take for them so they may wish to pass it over in favour of another tale.

“Desolate” continues the theme of discordant family relations and has shades of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always lived in the Castle. Next up, “Lost in the Woods,” as the title suggests, follows a protagonist, Allie, who is on a particular wooded path that we know from the outset is not going to lead to anywhere particularly good. The theme of familial loss is also a strong undercurrent in this piece, and explores the age-old notion of what if we could bring our loved ones back from the dead.

And if you thought that was dark, “Final Breaths” makes things even darker, this time dealing with the mother’s pain at the loss of a child. If that topic is a trigger warning for you, as well, this story is not going to be an easy one to get through. Needless to say, it’s one of the more disturbing pieces of the collection.

“Closer” is about a guy named Travis who is out hunting even though it has never particularly appealed to him in contrast to his father, who pretty much lives for the thrill of the hunt. The story, however, focuses more on their strained relationship and how despite the fact that Travis’s father has been less than kind to him, Travis is still desperate for the old man’s affection and approval.

The impact of the ending had resonance, but what followed immediately after was a little bit on the confusing side as there seemed to be a logistical issue. Still, like most of the stories in this collection, “Closer” is short, punchy, to the point, and delivers a sharp impact in a big way.

Along with frayed family relationships as one of the dominant themes in this collection, birds are another big one. This is something that continues in the story “Flocking Birds,” which is about Chad, who is at the dinner table with his wife, Jane, and daughter, Angie. Jane is quite keen on taking issue with everything Angie does, so this seems to set up a tale of mother-daughter conflict. It turns out that Angie has had a past issue with posting nude photos online, the cause of which seems to stem from her insecurities about her physical appearance and wondering if she’s pretty.

The metaphor here appears to be that while Chad constantly refers to worrying about birds outside, he is referring to his wife and daughter. The imagery that shows Angie’s bony body and implications that she might be anorexic are also bird-like to drive home the theme. While this story had a good build and an inevitable ending that seemed projected, it ended too soon and felt like there needed to be more build-up to the eventual conclusion.

“Pirouette” is another tale of domestic abuse, this time from the point of view of young Maddie, who does ballet as a coping mechanism for the awful arguments her parents have while “Of Both Worlds” seems to follow a mythological creature like the Minotaur or Grendel who can’t go out into the sun anymore. We learn through them that once upon a time there was a boy called Rylak who was a ‘malformed freak’ according to one of the humans who has invaded his lair. He has no choice but to reveal himself to them, and as you might guess, it doesn’t end well. It’s a fair attempt at trying to establish sympathy for why the monster becomes a monster.

“Breathing Cave” seems to explore some of the same territory as the previous story with a different group of teenagers in a cave. Soon, the main girl in the story is alone in the dark cave, her friends having disappeared, and the question becomes if she will survive, but of course, tales like this one never end well.

“Soul Tapped” follows an older protagonist, Henry, who reminisces about a son he has never met while he is being pursued by unruly teenagers. He’s something of an unreliable narrator, and when he finds his way back to the retirement home where he lives, there’s some trouble with another one of the residents. When the nurse comes by to check on him, Henry tells her that he thinks he has witnesses a ghost stealing the soul of one of the more overweight residents, but in the moment, it seems as though Henry may have been the one attacking this guy. I knew there was an elaborate setup for some twist and when it came at it at the end, it struck me as a tad underwhelming. Still, the story elements were interesting.

“The Water People” is about Chandler, whose wife has just left him. He speaks of having dedicated much of his life to research about ‘the water people’ near Chesapeake Bay and how he saw one when he was five years old. His wife finds out the hard way that she should have trusted him more.

“Water Snake” follows Sawyer, who is fishing, but he’s faced with several water snakes hurrying towards him. It’s a struggle for survival and how just when you think an experience is over, it can come back for you despite your best efforts.

“Buried Beneath the Old Chicago Swamps” continues the other dominant theme in this collection, which is that of creature features–stories about squid-like or reptilian creatures and monsters. This time around we follow the mishaps of a group of children who seem to have stumbled upon a witch’s house, but they also speak of “not having seen the Earth’s surface until last year, so their memories and knowledge may not be so reliable. It seems to be a post-apocalyptic tale set after some great calamity has beset the Earth and turns into a creature feature with the children’s survival becoming the question mark and follows an interesting path.

One of the other things I noticed about the collection is that it has been organized in such a way that stories with similar elements are grouped together. Thus, “The Bad Men” is another tale of post-apocalyptic suggestions, this time about a guy, Roger, who left Earth when in his early twenties, and is more of a sci-fi horror fusion.

“Parasite” is about Aiden, whose brother Neil has a habit of crying wolf, but when Aiden’s ex-fiancee, Jasmine (who, incidentally, appears to have been unfaithful to Aiden) gets involved, they have to make sure he’s okay, but of course, it’s far from okay. He’s been infected with some kind of alien life force and they need to get as far away from him as possible, but it’s a very complicated situation. There’s also lots of Cthulhu-inspired material in the monsters featured in this collection, and this particular story is one example of that.

“Strip Poker, Crabs, and Blue Women” is slightly more comical in its horror as Jesse and his friends need to fight alien-esque crab creatures with some, ahem, interesting tools while “The Benefit of Being Weighty” starts off with the protagonist chastising himself for ignoring the fact that bad things happen when the skin under his wedding ring throbs. The consequences of one such occasion ensue.

Overall, Embers is a well-constructed and put together collection of horror stories from Kenneth W. Cain that marks another quality release from Crystal Lake Publishing.

Why The Fetishization of Young Writers Continues

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20 under 40 list

30 under 30 age

Addition: I was planning to post this a few weeks ago and thought it would be fitting timing to release my write-up now as Chuck Wendig recently posted an article emphasizing that writers can write at any age. As he states, “You gotta do the work. That’s true whether you’re 16 or 60.” Wise words that we should all take to heart.

In high school, as a budding young writer, I couldn’t escape reading article after article about Christopher Paolini (who self-published Eragon at the age of 15 then went on to publish it with Random House at 19 to millions of sales worldwide). At the time, this gave me hope to think that maybe I could be like him and publish around the same age (suffice it to say, that didn’t quite happen). His commercial success did not always equate to critical approval, but his achievements remain remarkable. Still, the narrative around him is dominated by an almost exclusive focus on his youth.

Not everyone starts writing at a young age, but for those who do, we often feed into the media sensationalism around young writers. Having worked in book publishing for a number of years, I get it. Just as a salesperson and marketer must find unique selling points about products they’re trying to move off the shelves, publicists must do the same for authors. What sets them apart? Oh–they’re super young? Great. There’s the angle. I get it. But not only does it perpetuate unrealistic expectations in the hearts of young writers everywhere, it creates an attitude of ageism, communicating to writers that unless they’ve published their magnum opus by the age of 25 or 30, that they will never do so and that they have basically run out of opportunities to be remarkable in any way.

I thought I was the only one to look at the age of young writers published in the articles that discuss them and to then think, “This person has already done X by Y age. I should be filled with shame that I have failed to do the same.” The media does a bang-up job reinforcing this in aspiring authors and hyperbolizing the youth of published authors, as if the journalist is addressing anyone over the age of 14 and taunting them, saying, “This author has published a book at 15. What have you ever done?”

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Because the media is so fixated on fetishizing the age of young writers, it seldom stops to ask whether the books they write and publish are good. Are they quality novels or are they just overhyped and mediocre? This is not to say no novelist under the age of 30 is a good writer (Helen Oyememi is remarkably good). Closer to home (for me, anyway) is V.E. Schwab, a fantasy and young adult novelist who at the age of 29 (turning 30 this year) has already achieved more than most people do in a lifetime and has an infuriatingly excellent quality of writing.

New York Times article about her is what inspired me to write this post. It is called: Not Yet 30, This Fantasy Writer Is an Old Pro. As if they are trying to imply “she is better than all of you. And she’s not even 30 yet. What’s the matter with the rest of you?” As if the Times has not shamed us enough by this point, they add that Ms. Schwab decided “on a lark” to pursue a graduate degree in medieval art history as if to not-so-subtly imply that she is a genius to be exalted and praised on the level of Mozart and that the rest of us mortals are all a sorry bunch of dummies.

To be clear, I am not blaming the writers I have discussed at all. Far from it. I have great respect for many of them and think they have worked incredibly hard to achieve what they have. Paolini, for instance, worked tirelessly to sell copies of Eragon by going to schools and bookstores and toiling to move as many copies as he could. Like all authors, they and their publicists have to work hard to get them media coverage to ensure that their books sell.

amelia atwater

What I do find problematic is the way the media coverage emphasizes their youth, as if that is the only thing remarkable about them. I do think it is important to encourage young writers and give them a sense of hope rather than to crush their fragile dreams as is so often the case by cynical adults who call themselves “realistic” and tell these kids the same thing. I was one of those and can attest to how difficult it is to overcome that much continuous negativity and doubt aimed at you constantly.

The journalists and bloggers writing these pieces to promote the writers they are featuring do not sit down and say to themselves, “My goal is to make all the other writers reading this piece to feel as inadequate as possible. I want them to walk away with a sense of shame and guilt and a suffocating sense that nothing they ever do is good enough.” However, they do know that the indirect result of these types of pieces if often just that.

Many writers who start out quite young often dream big but struggle when we reach college or university and the time comes to “get serious” and “find a real job” and “be an adult.” Some of you may be thinking “Yes, but that’s life, my young friend. This is the battle we ALL undertake and you’re no exception.” Fair enough. Others may feel like pointing out that not every young writer succumbs to these pressures, or that they are well are of these demands but are just more resilient when it comes to filtering them out. I can think of several writers in my age group who started writing at pretty much the same time I did and who are prolific rising stars that are doing wonderful things. In the horror genre, Adam Cesare and Stephanie M. Wytovich come to mind.

But for those of us who aren’t as impervious to the demands I mentioned above about becoming an adult and getting established in the working world, each year that passes marks a larger barrier to carving out writing time while also finding reliable employment after graduation. One of the biggest killers of creativity for many writers is economic uncertainty–some thrive on not knowing where their next paycheque is coming from and battle to defy the odds, but a good number of young writers in this camp succumb to the pressures and struggle.

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Another factor that doesn’t get discussed in the laudatory pieces that sing the praises of these extraordinarily young writers who have achieved so much is their health–both mental and physical. Both of these also influence the likelihood not only of success but also of maintaining a pace. Many writers I know suffer from chronic diseases and ailments but have not let these obstacles get in their way–else they have had to work hard for many years discovering how to make this happen. Not everyone has that kind of strength and endurance, and it can take years to develop this.

Still another factor that’s missing from the pieces about young writers is the frank discussion of their mental health. Some of them have spoken out about suffering from depression and anxiety while others have learned to circumvent them over the years. The point is: health challenges–both mental and physical–affect a writer’s ability to write. Yes, many learn how to work around these things, but that process can take a tremendous amount of time.

roth

Also? Burnout is real. After years and years of taking notes from writing craft books and attending workshops, conferences, conventions, beta reading, critiquing groups, blogging, book reviewing, and balancing that with an education about the business of writing, not to mention the constant slog of rejection after rejection after rejection, it’s not difficult to imagine that a young writer might burn out.

Something else to consider: sometimes when a person starts out at the very top, there’s nowhere to go but down. So when writers that young succeed, they can be like stars that burns very brightly at first then just fade away over time. Part of adulthood includes having to contend with a body and mind that get tired faster. Energy becomes a precious commodity. Grappling with the job market and making sure we know where our next paycheque is coming from often adds to the perils of our creative energy, which dwindles. Life happens. Marriages, births, divorces, job gains, job losses, deaths, and so on.

So, what is a writer to do in the face of constant media fetishization of youth in writers? Chuck Wendig’s piece offers some solutions to consider, most of which can be summarized as: write anyway. Write regardless of your age. Don’t wait for someone else to give you permission to do so or to give you a signal telling you that you have now officially earned the right and the license to use the term “writer” to apply to yourself granted by some invisible committee that doesn’t exist. Many aspiring authors mistakenly think of the path to publication and success as being the same as what medical school students do to become licensed doctors, or passing the bar that allows law students to become barristers. It’s not the same. Do the writing. Put in the work. And to hell with the rest of it.  

Can Outlining Too Much Derail Writing Progress?

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There is an age old debate about if you’re a plotter or a pantser as a writer. Basically, plotters are those who find it very difficult to write fiction unless they’ve developed richly detailed outlines that break down every single action in every single scene, and the reactions and the transitions to the next scene, etc. They map everything out.

Pantsers, on the other hand, are so named because they ‘fly by the seat of their pants,’ so to speak. This means they don’t outline as they find that process to be too restrictive, or they have a few bullet points or write a few paragraphs but that’s it. Instead, they sit down with maybe a general idea of what they want to write about in a given project (and sometimes not even that) and they wait to see what comes to them, relying on unpredictability and the flexibility for changes to keep popping up.

There are countless debates about which method is “better”–that is to say, which method yields more writing output or enables more creative flow to facilitate the writer’s process so that they’re able to maintain a momentum once they’ve started their project.

I’ve recently come across the idea that outlining is too restrictive and can be a major reason for impeding a writer’s ability to keep up a momentum within what they’re working on. It’s too stilted and forced for some writers. Others go as far as wondering how plotters ever get anything done. Plotters wonder the same about pantsers.

This blog post isn’t going to try to tackle that debate–that’s been done in many places before and on a much bigger (and more comprehensive) scale. But what I am driving at is wondering if one of the reasons writers get stuck on a manuscript (or indeed, stalled altogether) might have a relationship with the fact that they are too rigid in their role as plotters and perhaps they may need to experiment with pantsing, no matter how uncomfortable that may seem at first.

Some writers must know the ending of their book before they even begin to write it. They work backwards, or they shuffle up and randomize the order of chapters they start (so instead of following the conventional and linear pattern of writing Chapter 1, 2, and 3 when they start a book, they might start with Chapter 10, make a detour to Chapter 18, go to Chapter 6, then tackle Chapter 2 and leave Chapter 1 last).

Different things work for different writers. No two processes are exactly alike. However, there is a tendency to associate plotters with “paint by numbers” kind of plotting, while some writers are quick to point out that while they are plotters, they don’t chart out every little single detail of their manuscript in excruciating detail necessarily.

Some people refuse to even “start the car” (or begin a book, to extend the metaphor) without having a map to guide them or without making sure they’ve got a GPS system installed because without those things, they know they would be completely lost within seconds and have no idea where they were headed.

Another school of thought argues that writing is like driving at night–you can only see what’s directly in front of you and the darkness and shadows of the night cover up the rest, so you must rely only on what you can immediately see (perhaps plotting one chapter at a time) else you’ll risk swerving out of control if you try to arrive at your destination too fast.

In my experience, pantsing to me feels like “winging in,” as in the writer just randomly deciding “Okay, cool, I’m going to go into this project and just go with the flow of whatever comes up.” I’ll admit I haven’t tried this method hard enough, or perhaps it could be that I’ve misunderstood how to go about pantsing (in which case, someone please tell me what the dynamics of pantsing are!) But what I do know from winging it in other areas of life like at work or school presentations is that it’s a 50/50 thing: either it can go really, super well or it can blow up in your face and show the obviousness of the fact that you’ve done zero preparation and that you have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.

Still, there is also the prevailing argument that outlining in too much detail can be too stifling and can lead to writer’s block because in essence, the writer is trying to exercise too much control, and forcing things to go unnaturally where she or he wants things to go, so…ironically, there is such a thing as plotting things out too well, which leads to bouts of hair-pulling and existential crises.

So, what’s the best solution? Is it a combination of both approaches? Is the answer to use neither of these approaches but something completely different? Is one method superior to the other? I’m very curious to know what writers think of this! Sound off below!

Why Do Writers Put Writing Last on the List?

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“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

—E.B. White

It’s no secret that writers oftentimes focus on laundry, washing the bathtub, doing their taxes, and pretty much anything else that can get them out of writing. This has been the subject of several blog posts related to why writers procrastinate. I’m interested in exploring why writers de-prioritize their work and put it at the bottom of their to-do lists in a given day. What makes writers say yes to everything else but not their writing?

Before I launch into my suggestions/theories, I’d like to point out that this list does not account for things like chronic illnesses, recent traumatic events in a person’s life, dealing with the loss of a job or a divorce, and things of that nature.

  • We’ve been told that writing is a selfish activity: Chuck Wendig has spoken about the fact that writing is often seen as an egotistical indulgence, a needless luxury that gets a lot of flack from non-writers because while there are firefighters and doctors out there in the world who are saving lives, what writers do is seen as the equivalent of kindergartners frolicking during playtime.
    • One of the ways to get over this, as Wendig suggests, is to be aware of these types of criticisms but to blow past them and to make art anyway. It may be uncomfortable at first, but it’s something writers must learn how to move past in order to move forward.
  • We fear that our writing is no good at all and never will be, so why bother with it at all: This is equal parts insecurity and Imposter Syndrome, but also stems from a misguided idea that writers have–the expectation that our first drafts should spring fully formed as of the first draft, like Athena from Zeus’s head. In reality, it doesn’t really work like this.
    • In addition, writers fear that their work will get torn apart by critique groups and beta readers so their creativity shrinks away and they’re left feeling deflated.
    • I’m not sure what a way around this is except to say that it’s the nature of the beast. Unless critique partners/beta readers/editors tear apart what you’ve produced, you’re not going to learn to spot patterns in your work of consistent issues that keep coming up again, and you’re not going to be able to improve.
    • It’s downright painful to implement revisions. Some writers recoil from it like cats from water, but despite the fact that it’s difficult and grueling to get through, it’s important to realize that there are ways of breaking it up into smaller pieces so it doesn’t come across as completely overwhelming and undoable.
  • The Personality Factor: some writers are predisposed, as part of their personality type, to  naturally put the needs and wants of others before their own. For people who are codependent or who have other personality disorders, their tendency to focus on the needs of others and to put their own at the bottom of the totem pole comes from a desire to take their focus away from the pain and self-hate that is waiting for them if they give way to their own thoughts and consider their own needs. It’s easier to focus on others, so they delay writing for a long time (sometimes permanently), and part of this is tied to the “selfish/indulgent” argument from the first bullet point.
    • In this case, it is incumbent upon the writer to understand that they have this problem and to seek help for it, either through self-initiated channels or through therapy or group settings. This one is something that a person’s parents and/or teachers have usually programmed into their brains, so they need to take years to un-learn this way of thinking.

The root of all of these things is fear. That and insecurity. Worrying about what others will think of us. Worrying that we’re inadequate. Worrying that we’re never going to reach the same levels of the writers who came before us that we idolize.

However, it’s important to recognize these things, understand which is the culprit for why we keep putting writing off, and to find a way to work around them.

What about you, fellow scribes? What are some of the reasons why you put writing last on your to-do list? Sound off below!