Author: Franklin Murdock

Notes From Purgatory: To Live and Be Alive (on the Blank Page)


Ever since I first began writing stories in my mother’s basement at the age of eight, I’ve been infatuated with the blank page.

I still remember the thrill of punching black letters onto the white with her typewriter because the act represented true, organic creation to me.  Anything seemed possible when I began a new story.  In fact, I’ve worked hard to preserve such awe when sitting down to a new idea.  It still fuels my need to translate the strange thoughts beneath thoughts in the depths of my mind.

To me the blank page represents potential.  It is the one place where all writers are equal.  Before we all set that first word into existence, we are given the opportunity to create greatness.  We are at the same starting line as Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or any of our other successful colleagues.  Sure, at their level they are almost guaranteed to deliver something wonderful, but through refinement of our craft (not to mention countless attempts at peeling away the blank page), are we not privy to the same potential of a great story?

Well, maybe.

See, the blank page is a window of what could be.  Even so, success isn’t a guarantee.  And it shouldn’t be.  Professional success is earned by those who stare at the void of the blank page and accept its challenge.  Being a successful writer means bleeding away the white with precision of craft, confidence, and talent.  Was it not Michelangelo who freed angels from blocks of marble?  Are we not doing the same with black letters on a white canvas?

To tell true, writing is making something out of nothing, imprinting the DNA of our thoughts on the very void until something new has been manifested.  We must learn to accept the challenge of the blank page, to be confident in its defeat at our nimble fingers and the sharp points of our pens.  After all, isn’t writer’s block really just confronting the nothingness with nothing to say?

So we must be fearless, alive.  We must stare into the abyss with our steaming cups of coffee without flinching.  We have to laugh.  We have to love.  We must live and be alive on the blank page.

My point here is that with any blank page there exists raw potential and, as writers, it is our duty to do the best we can with what we have.  Each cut we make into the blank before us is a history that we author.  We who write are fortunate enough to create records of who we are through our stories and that, sometimes, people want to read them.  And it is all afforded to us by the promise of a blank page.

The void will always be there and so, too, the desire to fill it with creation, to accept the challenge of “what if.”  And we must be guides through the nothingness, to bridge the void with the architecture of imagination, to say “follow me” through space and time.

Notes from Purgatory: Forget the First (an Exercise in Restraint for New Writers)


Recently I was thinking about where I am in my development as a writer (I believe it’s important to take stock every so often to ground yourself and better define your goals) and I noticed an aspect of my trajectory I’d overlooked for years.

In a past Notes from Purgatory article, “Brevity. Soul. Wit.,” I detailed a time in my development where I was trying to impress my readers with verbosity and was (thankfully) rebuked by one of my university teachers.  After that experience, I remember going back to my dorm room and looking over a manuscript for a surreal adventure novel I’d been writing.  And then I remember putting it aside both physically and mentally.

The story, The Somnambulist, was supposed to be a multi-layered metaphor upon metaphor for the futility of the modern human condition as told through a quest of a suicidal man who finds his true self in a fantasy world he creates to save himself.  The idea came to me after first hearing Agaetis Byrjun by the Icelandic band Sigur Ros.  It came in vivid images that meshed so well with the music I’d been hearing that night as I drifted off to sleep.  I had to write it.  The world had to know.

The problem was that I hadn’t refined my tools enough to properly tell the story.  After hearing my teacher’s advice (“don’t sacrifice precision of language for flash and a few extra syllables”), I stopped penning The Somnabulist and waited in an effort to gain perspective.  Not writing something sounds easy, but I was crushed because it made me reevaluate my passion for storyteller.  I felt like all my hard work had been for nothing.  But now that I’m older and a bit wiser I understand that those doubts are natural and must be overcome to succeed.

A year or so later, I found the almost-completed manuscript for The Somnambulist I’d set aside and do you know what I saw?  Self-absorbed drivel.  I saw the unbalanced work of a novice, though one who’d had a budding command of the language.  Although I was embarrassed by a lot of what I read there (seriously, it’s like a thesaurus vomited all over my word processor), the act of self-evaluation put my development into perspective.  In short, The Somnambulist should have been abandoned because it was actually a sacrifice of both time and ego, a sacrifice that helped shape my craft for the better.

So my advice for writers of prose is to stuff away your first long, lofty composition.  Forget that first novelette or short story for a year.  When you revisit that story, may it grant perspective and clarity on your path to becoming a better writer.  You might be embarrassed by what you find in those old pages, but look past that to the potential you had.  Then look at how much better you are now.

Forget the work. Forgive the work. And see how great you’ve become.

Notes From Purgatory – In But A Few Choice Words


The Internet, as wondrous as it can be, has clipped our attention spans to the blink of an eye.  In some ways, we’ve become creatures of impatience and in such a short time.  So in a bustling world where we angrily click away from webpages that take more than three seconds to load, how is a writer to tell a story?

Enter flash fiction.

Flash fiction, short short stories, microfiction… these are all blanket terms for a complete, concise story comprised of but a few words.  The key words in this description are, of course, “complete” and “story.”  Read any market for flash fiction and you’ll quickly find editors want a story with a beginning, middle, and end.  They all require the same conflicts, characters, tension, action, and payoff as a longer piece, but told in a page or two… or less.

Wait, how the hell is that even possible?  Well, before we dive in, let’s take a look at what microfiction entails.

As previously mentioned, a short short story is literally just that.  The range of flash fiction varies, but a word count of under 1000-1200 is generally considered the cutoff point before you enter the world of the “short story.”  1000 words?  Flash fiction.  500 words?  Flash fiction.  250, 100, 50, 5 words?  Flash fiction.  There are disagreements, of course, but length is not that important, to be honest.  The actual story and the craft required to tell it is what really matters.

The first rule of flash fiction is that it must follow all requisites for a story.  We’re not going to get much of a connection with our readers if all we give them is a vignette without any real substance.  Instead, we need to have a fleshed out plot that is driven by conflict and that reaches a conclusion.  There must be a character, a setting, motivation, and all the other components that make up a story of any other length.  The challenge is to achieve such a fleshed out story in as few words as possible.

This leads us to the second rule: every word matters.  This rule rings true for all prose, of course, but especially for flash fiction.  At such a limited word count, every single word becomes important.  This includes commonplace words such as pronouns and articles like “a” and “the.”  We must be conscious of our word choice and shortcuts like contractions if we are to write as minimally as possible.  This isn’t to say that the shortest version of a story is the best – after all, we have to preserve the flow of a piece.  We simply have to be conscious of what we’re saying and how we’re constructing a story to say what we want it to.

Because we’re dealing with constraints in length, we must be sure to optimize each word, sentence, and paragraph.  Each word should enhance the next just as each sentence should build onto what is to come, and so on.  We (and our readers) don’t have time to become muddled in long descriptions of settings or superfluous word choice.  We have to give our audience the full story by only supplying the bones.  But how?

The third rule: implication.

In longer prose, we have the time to fatten up the story, building our world brick by brick and giving our beloved heroine an awesome back-story where she learned how to fight demons from her days as velociraptor nanny.  In flash fiction, however, we have to hint at such.  The best microfiction leads the reader to possibilities that go beyond the text.  This use of implication can be seen in the famous “six-word novel” usually attributed to Ernest Hemingway:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn

The story isn’t so much about what is written here (though the word choice is certainly fundamental), but what is implied.  These six little words are ominous in nature – implicitly mysterious – meant to force the reader to ask questions.  Why are these baby shoes for sale?  Whose were they?  And, the most obvious question we’re meant to ask: why were these baby shoes never worn?  There’s a story in there, although in this instance, the reader is tasked with constructing it themselves.

I’m not sure how successful this piece would be if submitted by a contemporary writer because its a rather unique example, but it illustrates the thought-process behind the creation of short prose.  As writers, we must facilitate our readers’ imaginations, giving them enough narrative to satisfy the plot while still allowing the story to progress in the minds of our audience even after the last word has been read.  A great writer can craft a flash fiction piece that’s self-contained, but still has a developed, directed sense of what lies beyond the story.

That’s a lot to consider given only a few hundred words with which to work.

Flash fiction requires a lot of practice just like any other prose.  Editors and readers are looking for hard-hitting stories that are written with such brevity that it impresses.  Microfiction isn’t just some shortcut to getting published quickly.  Crafting a great story in the span of a page is difficult and requires precision and a real grasp of the elements of a story as well as solid narrative flow.  But when you finally have your great story idea whittled down, each word polished and necessary, you’ll find that you’re left with prose that not only delivers, but inspires.

And all in but a few choice words.


Notes From Purgatory: The Story And The Teller


A few years ago, a friend called me saying her creative well had run dry, that perhaps her muse had drowned itself somewhere in her stream of consciousness.  My friend was concerned because she wanted so desperately to write something (in her case, poetry), but the spark of inspiration just wasn’t there.  Writer’s block had come down hard on her, an inconvenience I knew all too well.

To jumpstart her creativity, I had her close her eyes and describe a room.  She chose a small kitchen and, when I asked for a tour, she included a stove, cabinets, and a dining table.  I asked her to show me another room.  She told me about the hallway leading to a living room with hardwood floors and shelves packed with book (go figure).  I could hear the focus in her voice as she imagined this quaint little house and it thrilled me because I was sharing in her creative experience.

Suddenly she told me about the raindrops she could hear on the roof.  I asked her to take me outside, which she did with a tone of wonder.

She described the feel of the drops, how they were light and cool.  She told me about the clean smell of foliage and flowers.  She even told me about the pitter-patter of the drops on the sidewalk around us.

“What’s that on the sidewalk?” I asked after a moment.  She asked me what I’d meant and I asked, “that thing there on the sidewalk… do you see it?”

“A blueberry,” she replied without a beat.  The answer was strange, but satisfying because it was a centerpiece to this mental tour of ours.  I didn’t ask her why a blueberry was on the sidewalk in the rain or the Freudian implications of such imagery, I merely let her take in this world she’d created from nothing.

“You created this whole place,” I told her.  “And you said inspiration had left you.”

She was silent for a moment before laughing and thanking me.  She said that, although she hadn’t found an idea for a new poem, she was overjoyed in having been reminded how powerful creativity could be.  I was happy that she had found light at the end of the tunnel.  Sometimes that’s all we need to see, just a crack in the roadblock to remind us that we don’t work in vain and that we have the power to create and renew.

Although I prodded my friend on, she was the creator of her own little world.  Sometimes we need to be reminded of how powerful our imaginations are, a fact we all took for granted when we were little kids running through the streets with our pretend swords and make-believe steads.  Imagination is a rejection of the malaise of adulthood, a means to escape the everyday blandness of work-eat-sleep.  We need to remember this as creators of stories.

So, we just need to step back and let the story tell itself.  We are lightning rods of creative energy, translators of the internal ether.  But in the grind of creation, we often forget to just sit back and imagine.  The secret heart inside each of us is always speaking of the fantastic and bizarre, but we don’t often shut ourselves down long enough to let the voice be heard through the chaos of “everyday.”  But if we pause and listen, we can pick up the story asking to be told.  We can save our muses from the torrent of thoughts inside and the maelstrom of the mundane within.

Notes from Purgatory – “Brevity. Soul. Wit.”


I received some of the best advice about my craft when I was just an innocent little undergraduate English major with my bundle of Faulkner books and frequent coffee-drinker punch cards.  I was taking a Rhetorical Composition class headed by a man we called Professor John even though such a title was still many years off.  He was a great teacher who interweaved his lessons with little nuggets of wisdom about how real life was for writers – how to cope with the constant flow of rejection form letters, the countless hours of editing, and what language publishers spoke to name a few.

One day, he assigned us a ten-page essay on any topic we desired.  His intent was to later comb through the composition to determine our strengths and weaknesses and present such in a one-on-one meeting outside the class.  I turned in an ambitious piece about humanity’s underlying, internal struggle between base instincts and the inevitable progression toward civility (I was also a psych major, go figure).  When it was my time to sit down with Professor John, his words were encouraging.  But after a few rounds of niceties, he touched on some of my weaknesses and, thus, changed forever the way I approach the craft of writing.

“You used a lot of big words, Frank,” he’d said.  “But, even though they were used correctly, their effect was lost because, in most instances, you sacrificed precision of language for flash and a few extra syllables.”

I nodded, understanding what he’d meant, but not how to apply what he was saying.  Those big words were just how I wrote.  I was just verbose, dammit.  How was I supposed to change the way the words came to me during my moments of inspiration?

“Frank, every word we write needs to be precisely the right word from start to finish,” Professor John continued.

“But how do I know the right word?” I interjected.

“You develop an instinct for it,” he replied.  “You start seeing and hearing the right word.  You know it by how it enhances the words around it.  And the sentence it’s in.  And the paragraph.  And the page.  And the whole piece.”

“I see,” I said, thinking he was finished.

“And,” he continued, “the mind of the reader.”

I paused, my mouth mostly likely agape.

“These big, but imprecise words tell me you’re writing for yourself,” Professor John said, “but you need to be focusing on the reader.  Impress them with what you’re saying, before you do so with how you’re saying it.  That’s another instinct a good writer needs — the ability to discern what is beneficial to the reader.  And brevity and precision are key, Frank.”

I was dumbfounded.

“Look, I see this problem a lot, especially at your level.  Hell, I dealt with it myself.  But you need to remember it’s just another layer of fluff that needs to be peeled back if you’re to find your true voice.”

Those words were some of the most inspiring I’ve ever heard about the craft because they were so personal.  They taught me a strange species of humility and appreciation for those who read my stories.  From there I focused on becoming both concise and precise with my craft instead of running to consult a thesaurus every other paragraph.  I took Professor John’s words to heart and have become a better writer for doing so.

Notes From Purgatory: On Contributor’s Copies


There’s been an ongoing debate for years concerning whether a contributor copy — that is, a free copy of a publication, be it physical or digital, in which a contributor’s work appears — is the industry standard for presses that offer nothing more than exposure in exchange for an author’s composition.  Can you guess which side most writers are on?  Well, most figure exposure is cool and all but, hey, crafting a good story is hard work and takes time, both of which should be rewarded with a check (or, more recently, a PayPal transfer).

Unfortunately, a lot of small, independent presses can’t afford to pay a standard rate (or even a token flat-rate) and, thus, are exposure-only markets.  Again, most authors, at least those who are just starting to build their platforms, are okay with this because they are just beginning their careers in the business.  Some would call these newcomers naive and desperate but I feel judgment should be reserved because, after all, not everyone’s goals are lofty and we all started somewhere, right?  Some just want to see their name in print.

Before the advent of the Internet and widespread dissemination of digital formats such as .pdf files and e-books, providing a contributor copy of a printed work cost presses real money.  Despite the costs, most markets were still willing to provide them as compensation for the use of an author’s story.  That way, the writer was at least getting something tangible for their work besides that vague notion of exposure.  Now that presses have the capabilities to quickly create digital media, contributor copies are even easier to provide to contributing authors… and for free.

Thus the industry standard seems to have become providing an author a contributor copy (usually digital, but not always) for accepting his work on an exposure-only basis.  This has become sort of an unspoken understanding between an editor and contributing authors.  This has become so commonplace that when a press refuses to provide such a copy, one takes pause.  Such is the case in the following example, which happened to me recently when I was offered a contract to be a part of a for-charity horror anthology.  In an act of professionalism, I’ve chosen to remove the name of the press and the publication.

A month or so ago, I sent a standard query to a small press that’d put out a call for short horror stories for a themed anthology, the proceeds of which would be going to a certain charity.  I was fine with the submission guidelines, even the part that said authors would be given a special rate of 40% off the retail price for each purchase because, hey, proceeds were going to charity anyway.  So, I sent away and went back to whatever I do when I chuck one of my stories into the void and hope it sticks.

A week or two later, I received the following e-mail from the press:

Dear Franklin,

Thank you for sharing your work with us; we enjoyed ’Two Shades of White’ very much and, pending edits, would like to include it in our upcoming anthology, entitled [ANTHOLOGY TITLE]. Attached you will find the proposed contract, and upon signing and promptly returning it, we will forward the document to our publisher so your name and story title can be added to [NAME OF PRESS]’s early acceptance list.

We look forward to working with you; please feel free to contact us with any questions at [E-MAIL ADDRESS].

Congratulations on being a part of this exciting anthology!

Very Warmest,


Hey, an acceptance!  Nice.  Pretty standard stuff there… until I checked out the attached contract.  It was a pretty standard legal contract outlining rights being transferred and applicable parties and such.  But I starting getting a weird feeling as I read through it.  First, neither charitable intent of proceeds nor the charity itself were ever named.  Second, there was a clause which read that any edits to my story could be made without my consent.  Third, it said I would not be receiving a contributor copy, electronic or otherwise.

The first issue irked me because the press would not be legally bound to give the proceeds of the anthology to charity.  I hoped the money would be going to the right place, but how would I know?  The second issue seemed suspect because every editor I’ve ever worked with has been open and honest about the editing process, always giving me a final draft to go over before publication.  And, in light of the other two issues, I began to rethink my stance on the third issue despite being fine with the reduced price I’d have to pay to see my own story in print when I thought my money was going to charity.

After such reasoning and a number of conversations with a few professional friends, I sent the following e-mail to indicate I was withdrawing my story:

Greetings ,

After careful consideration, I’ve chosen to withdraw my submission of “Two Shades of White” from [ANTHOLOGY NAME]. Thanks again for your time and consideration and I wish you the best in your endeavors.

As always, I hope this finds you well,

A few hours later, I received a reply:


     So sorry to hear. It was a wonderful story. If there are any questions or concerns that were a deciding factor, we would be glad to help in any way.

Best Wishes,



Well, that was an interesting reply.  I was appreciative that the press was willing to answer any questions or concerns I had and so I let my curiosity spill out of me in the following response:


Hello again,
I am choosing to withdraw my story, “Two Shades of White,” for numerous reasons, the principle among them being that the contract you sent me makes no mention of proceeds going to any charity whatsoever, the declaration of which was clearly stated in your submission guidelines.  Also stated in your guidelines was mention that absolutely no author would be privy to acceptance before the submission deadline. Of course, I would love to believe that “Two Shades of White” moved you so intensely that you were forced to forego such a declaration, but it still seems a tad unprofessional to me.

Another issue I had with the contract is the clause which states that edits could be done to my work without my final approval. Believe me, I understand time constraints and that most errors are small, but the multitude of other editors I’ve worked with over the years have always offered me such approval.

Finally, the issue of withholding a contributor copy also seems dubious to me as a professional writer, if but an electronic version. I didn’t mind having to pay 60% for a physical copy when I thought the proceeds were going to [CHARITY NAME], but as I’ve stated above, the contract you presented contains no information regarding charity, despite what was stated in your submission guidelines. Finding this last issue odd, I did some research and found that [NAME OF PRESS] had been getting a lot of negative attention lately for the issue of withholding contributor copies. I’m not going to pretend to know the whole story, but the issue still gives me pause.

With all of this in mind and with regard to the advice of several dear friends and writers, I am forced to withdraw “Two Shades of White.” This is not to say that I’m upset with the experience, but it does feel like one I would have to worry about and I just don’t have time to do so when there’s already so much on my plate.  Still, I wish you luck in your endeavors.

F. Charles Murdock

I didn’t come off like a penis, did I?  I honestly wasn’t trying to make digs at the press, even with my “unprofessional” comments.  I wanted to give them honesty because that’s what this business is about: honesty and professionalism.  Either way, here’s the response I got:

Dear Franklin,

            Without wanting to waste your valuable time, you brought up some good points that we would appreciate the opportunity to address.

            Firstly, regarding your main issue: The contract used for [NAME OF PRESS] is mostly standardized for an array of open calls. The proceeds are going to be forwarded through PayPal to [NAME OF CHARITY], so while it is not in the paper contract, there is a verbal agreement between [NAME OF PRESS] & [NAME OF CHARITY]. Even though you’ve chosen to withdraw your story, the contact information is [E-MAIL ADDRESS OF CHARITY], allowing you to verify the agreement, if you wish to. They operate in both the USA&UK.

            Next, regarding contributor copies, [NAME OF PRESS] does not provide contributor copies for any of their anthologies for a number of reasons, the main one being that as of now, it’s a small [CITY] based press, and the expense for shipping alone overseas is quite high. In royalty paying anthologies, [NAME OF PRESS] prefers to have a lower threshold for royalties, thus allowing the authors to decide how to spend the money. As for electronic copies, the reason [NAME OF PRESS] doesn’t provide them is because they can be easily passed around, infringing upon other authors’ rights. There are debates about this issue. [NAME OF PRESS] has already paid out royalties for a number of authors, including [CERTAIN AUTHOR’S NAME].

            As editors for [NAME OF PRESS] we personally requested a charity anthology to benefit [CHARITY], because two close family members [ARE AFFECTED BY THE DISEASE THE CHARITY WAS SET UP FOR]; it’s very personal for us. The call on the website has been altered, as that certainly was an issue that needed addressed. Thank you.

            Regarding the editing portion of the contract, as a courtesy to the authors we work with, we always provide the author with the edited version of their story before publication, and will gladly discuss anything the author is uncomfortable with.

            The 1st anthology we edited, [NAME OF ANTHOLOGY], won 2nd place in [NAME OF POLL], right behind another [NAME OF PRESS] publication that took 1st, despite negative attacks.

            As for ‘Two Shades of White’— we felt it was an excellent story and wish you the best wherever it finds a home.




I’m going to be honest, I found myself wondering how snide that “valuable time” line was before giving the editor the benefit of the doubt — after all, true intent is hard to discern over e-mail.  Also, this e-mail did little to belay the doubt I felt after reading the proposed contract.  I was left wondering why I would have to verify a deal between a press and a charity.  Shouldn’t it have been in the contract?  That would have been easier for all parties concerned.

The part about contributor copies, though, is what really rubbed me the wrong way.  I truly understand that providing printed copies of a book costs serious dough (my wife used to work at a printing company and had firsthand experience regarding costs), but a digital copy?  And they won’t provide a digital copy because it might get passed around?

First, that flies in the face of what the market has shown regarding peer-to-peer sharing and pay-what-you-want options: if people are truly intrigued by your product, they will pay for it and usually more than you’d think.  Also, this is a for-exposure agreement they’re wanting me to sign... the more people see it, the better.  This isn’t to say that I would’ve sent free copies to everyone ever, but it seems incongruent with what’s going on.  We want your work to receive exposure, but we don’t want your work to be exposed.  Obviously not wanting to lose proceeds plays into this declaration, but still, it doesn’t make much sense to me.

Then they state that I would be provided with a final draft to approve before publication, which wasn’t mentioned in the original contract.  Given this, the incongruity between their contract and their commentary, and the weird vibe I was getting, I sent them one last e-mail over a week later in an attempt to understand their reasoning:


Again, thank you for the prompt and polite response.  I realize that this reply is ten days due and I apologize if it’s unwelcome, but I’ve had both personal and professional matters that have come up in the last week.


My concern for the literary contract as submitted by [NAME OF PRESS] to me, the author of the work, was not that it was a stock legal document, which was quite apparent and an industry standard for independent presses.  Rather, said contract did not seem to reflect the anthology (nor the charity) for which it was drawn up, which is to say that I would expect a contract for a project of this magnitude to have customized content beyond a legal template that expresses to whom the proceeds are going.  I don’t doubt that you have an agreement with [NAME OF CHARITY], but I don’t understand why the contract couldn’t be drawn up to reflect such contribution.  This is to say that, although I’m not accusing you of such, you could legally keep the money gained by this anthology because the charity is not expressly stated within the contract.  This fact gave a few of my professional friends pause (along with the “editing” clause, which also seems inconsistent with the comments you’ve given me).  Again, no accusations are being made here.


Your comments on a contributor’s copy, though, has me more perplexed than the contractual inconsistencies.  On some levels, I can understand how printing a physical copy for each contributing author would be expensive. But on the other hand and to be blunt, I don’t understand why a press that offers contributing authors “exposure” is worried about getting just that if a digital copy of the work were to be passed around the Internet. This isn’t to say that such dissemination would even take place: from my experience in the literary business, most writers just want a copy of their publication to look at and be proud of.  This has become an industry standard.  I understand that you might feel this would take away from proceeds, but recent research in crowd-funding and name-your-price options has shown that products that are well-received and well-intentioned garner more support, especially through word-of-mouth.  I can’t fathom how an author would be upset with a story he’d given to a press for free getting exposure if that the form of “payment” that’s being offered.  I’m not trying to change your dynamic by any means, but am only seeking to understand the reasoning behind it.


Again, thank you for your responses and for your comments on my story.  I sincerely hope I’m not intruding with my own continued comments.

I hope this finds you well,


I didn’t receive a reply.

I’ve been thinking about this exchange for a few weeks now, wondering if I’d been unreasonable in some of my conclusions.  I hope that their commitment to the charity is real because it’s a great idea, but one I just didn’t feel right supporting with so many inconsistencies on their part.  And still, there’s that biting question of a contributor’s copy and what it means for an author selling his work for exposure.

So, is a contributor’s copy an industry standard?  Should it be?  Whether or not, we need to evaluate what a story is worth in a world where entire volumes can be digitized and stored on devices that can hold thousands of books.  The industry has changed… is still changing… and we need to reflect such changes to meet the goals of writers, editors, and readers alike.


Notes From Purgatory: Writing With Relativity


There are many factors to consider when composing a concise story with ample depth.  Choosing the right words during the writing process and cutting the fat when editing are certainly key, no doubt, but to really interweave a descriptive, multilayered story, an author must construct subtle references and allusions within the story itself.


Just as a comedian will reference an earlier punchline (called a “call-back”) for an unexpected laugh, the writer must use metaphors, motifs, and other word clues to reference different elements of a story.  A well-spun metaphor can subtly foreshadow upcoming conflicts or call back prior story points so that, when a story is reread, the reader is then able to pick up on these hints and, more often than not, has an enjoyable experience putting together the pieces that had previously been hidden.


In this way, the writer can construct a story that, on its basic level, is enjoyable.  With some well-placed references and allusions, however, the story can be enriched with hidden depth that opens into an entire network of secrets that were there all along.  The author is giving the reader the option of diving in if they want to commit the time.  If not, well, there’s always a great story to be read regardless of its depth, right?


As an example of this relativity, say I’m writing a ghost story about a family who sunk their last dime into a farmhouse that they later find to be haunted (original, right?).  The twist ending is that the family died in a nasty car wreck on moving day.  We can plant subtle hints to this ending with a variety of word choices and metaphoric descriptions.  Perhaps when the family pulls up to the house with the moving truck, we describe the scene thusly:


The kids, Todd and Emily, were the first out of the moving truck after their father had killed the engine.  They barely glanced up at the wide windows as they sprinted to the front door, both determined to get the bedroom in the attic.  As they went, Michael and his wife, Alice, stepped out into the smell of the harvest that seemed to pervade the entire county.  The aroma was hearty and made them forget the troubles they’d left behind in Kansas City.


“This is where we start our new life,” Michael said.  Alice flashed him her youthful grin before turning to their new house, both of them wondering just where their kids had gone.


Michael’s declaration, of course, is ironic considering they’re all dead by then, but the reader doesn’t know that because we haven’t really given anything away.  We were dropping subtle hints.  When the story is reread, however, the reader might pick up on the phrase “their father had killed the engine” or “start our new life” and think “Oh!  I see what you did there!”  And, really, the entire story will prove itself to be the family “forgetting the troubles they’d left behind” because, in essence, they’ve forgotten their troublesome deaths until the story comes full circle and they make their discovery.


See? Readers love those little nods and using such referencing proves how well an author truly knows his or her story.


In this vain, metaphors, similes, and other like modes of descriptions should relate to the story in some way.  If a writer used “the man was a mountain” in a medieval story about a rebellious clan of knights, there should probably be a reason otherwise the description seems out of place.  Is there an important mountain range in the story?  Is the element of earth featured?  Was the man a miner in his past life?  Every description should be relevant and relative and, most of all, subtle.


For the most part, try to give your readers doors instead of keys.  After all, even before a door is opened, a peek can be taken through its keyhole.

Notes From Purgatory: My Story, My Soldier


As authors of fiction we often refer to our stories as our babies… and why not?  We conceive a story idea, let it incubate and grow, give it our personality, and eventually settle on a name.  Then the story gets sent out into the world to make us proud.  It’s an apt metaphor, I agree, but I submit that dark fiction has a slightly different upbringing — in our twisted world, I believe our stories are our soldiers.

You see, a good soldier, like good dark fiction, must first be broken down before it can be built up.  We must deconstruct an idea to get to its true heart.  We must understand the potential of the story, what it could be, must be.  Only then can true creation happen in the strange realm of our imaginations.

Much like a soldier, dark fiction must be whipped into shape through hard work (and hard words).  Trial after trial, draft after draft, we are charged with commanding our stories and toughening them up.  We discipline our troops with editing.  We trim the fat with a strict regimen of revision.  All the while we infuse the story with our own personal philosophies.

Then, when the soldier is ready, we unleash it upon the curious minds of the world.  Through the creative process — the boot camp of ink and paper — we make our stories work for us.  Our soldiers must do what we cannot: carry our messages through distance and time, acting in our stead.

Good wartime strategy helps our troops along, of course — a thorough marketing plan, a solid fan base, publication by an established press.  But war doesn’t matter if the soldiers aren’t ready to deploy, so we must make sure we’ve done all we can to ensure victory.

Our stories must be disciplined enough to grab the reader’s attention from beginning to end.  We need to craft stories so strong they invade her thoughts long after the last word has been read.  If our soldiers have been properly trained — if a good horror story has been properly crafted — they will give us presence as authors of dark fiction in the very lives of our readers.

So conceive your idea, grow your story, and mold it with hands both tough and tender.  Remember, though, that dark fiction is a tough world and to survive, you’ll need stories that defend your name and keep your honor. You need to ensure the reader that you’re in control so that when she’s in the trenches of your story, she knows you’re fighting for her. She needs to be sure you want to win her over so that when the last word has been read and the soldier has been reluctantly retired, all parties understand it’s been worth the time and effort for the greater good.

All together now: Left!  Left!  Left, Write, Left!