Author: Ken MacGregor

Brain Babies: The Horror of Genre

The Horror of Genre

So, I have this friend, also one of my editors, who classifies what he writes as “dark Speculative Fiction.” I like that. Rolls off the tongue. Sounds classy. I use it myself sometimes. Mostly when I’m talking to someone who likely sees horror as something vile, repulsive, grotesque.

Now, I have no problem with those adjectives, and I know most of you probably don’t either. Horror, as a genre (I know it’s an emotion, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to refer to it as a genre), is supposed to evoke a reaction of fear, revulsion, and/or shock. Horror is supposed to make you uncomfortable. That’s a big part of its draw, I think.

Now, for me, writing as well as reading, I care far more for the quality of the story than for whatever’s happening on the page. I can take or leave gore, but I need solid writing.

I think that what a lot of people fail to understand is that horror is so incredibly diverse. That it is layered, nuanced, and encompasses a vast spectrum of styles.

If you want to get readers interested in your wonderfully diverse genre, you might have to cleverly spin the whole thing. “Oh, this isn’t horror,” you might say. “It’s dark, Speculative Fiction.” Of course, it is horror. We know that. And that’s wonderful. Horror is great! It’s my favorite genre.
(more…)

Stitched Lips: How An Anthology Came To Be

I want to talk a little about my dead wife. That’s a good opener, right? Grabs your attention right out of the gate. Liz Dahl MacGregor and I were together for 21 years. Married for 17 of those. She was brilliant, funny, quick-witted, and sassy AF. She also had the biggest heart of almost anyone I’ve ever known. And she was tough. Liz fought hard for what she believed in. She went to law school with the goal of someday getting into politics and making some real positive change in the world. I bet she would have pulled it off, too. She was that kind of person.

I’ll give you an example: we were hanging out in a park, by the river, a short walk from our house. Our kids were throwing rocks in the water and my older asked why there wasn’t a playground in this park. Liz said, “You know what? That’s an excellent question.” She then went on to help organize a committee to petition the city to build one. She helped raise money for it, and was instrumental in ensuring that it was accessible to all sorts of children. That playground exists today because of my dead wife. A plaque dedicating it to her memory is prominently displayed next to it.

This is who she was. She would see a need that had to be filled, and she would do what it took to fill it. She knew hundreds of people, and she was constantly making connections. Someone would comment that they wanted to start a bakery; Liz would say, “Oh, hey. You should totally meet up with [name]. They are looking to back a small business, and the love donuts!” Then, the two people would meet, introduced by her, and within a year, we’d have a new bakery. It was kind of amazing.

When she died, we held three memorials for her: the first was small, close friends and family. We told stories about her, songs were sung, and a lot of tears were shed. That was where the mayor told me she was going to make sure they dedicated the playground to her. The second was her family’s memorial. That was cathartic for them, and, to a lesser degree, myself. The third was held in a large public building (donated by the organization that ran it), catered (mostly donated as well), where a band played for free, and a lot of us got up to speak (and sing again). The hall was packed, with over 300 people in a cavernous space with no A/C in 90+ degree heat. This is how much she was loved.
(more…)

Brain Babies, Head Spinning Edition

Content warning: left-leaning politics (though I try to stay polite and stick to facts, my views color the following narrative; I make no apologies, but thought it prudent to mention it).

I’m not actually going to pull a Regan and rotate my head around completely, freaking out the priest in the room (though you know I totally would if I could). This is more of a metaphor thing.

It’s 2021. First of all, as a person born in 1966—you know: well into last century—this is freaky enough all by itself. Secondly, what the hell is going on!? It seems like the entire planet is falling apart around our ears!

A Global Pandemic

The United States rent in two by raging sociopolitical factions

Leadership riddled with incompetence and staggering selfishness

Riots

Overstressed hospitals

So much anger, and pain, and frustration. It’s all rising to the top and boiling over. And, naturally, everyone around is getting scalded, burnt, killed.

It’s overwhelming. It’s frightening. It’s appalling. It’s hard to know how to cope with So Much Stuff! I’m sure many of you, like me, wonder if, the next time you step outside, will some maniac run me down with their car? Will I lose my job? Be homeless? Will a disease-carrying person breathe tiny vapors in my face, passing Death to me, maybe without even knowing they’re doing it? Will they do it on purpose, just for kicks? Will I go to pay the property taxes on my house and happen to be at City Hall the same day some asshole decides to shoot up the place? Will I catch a few rounds to the chest, clutching the envelope with the check in it, wheezing out my last breaths as some deluded psychopath cries “Freedom!” and runs away? Will my children be orphaned? Will I lose the woman I love? Hope not. You don’t really get over that shit.

Deep breath. Okay. So, there’s all of that worry. That fear. And it’s justified. The world is scary right now. But it’s easy to focus on the negative, right? We’re conditioned to it, aren’t we? I think a big reason for this is that bad news sells. It draws people in like a car accident, a train wreck. We, as bystanders, are certainly horrified by the blood in the streets, by the limb sticking out of the train window, barely visible through the smoke (is it attached?). We feel horrified by the events at hand, but we also think “Oh thank god it’s not me!”

But! It’s not all bad news, folks. It’s really not. There are good people out there, doing good things. Sometimes, in the face of the horrors too. Nurses, EMTs, doctors…wow, you guys! I cannot imagine how difficult this has been for you. My deepest respect goes to you all. (more…)

Brain Babies: I Don’t Think I have a Niche

I guess I’ve always had this issue. When I was in high school, I was a theater kid; I was also on the track team; I hung out with stoners; I played D&D with the geeks. I flitted and jumped from one clique to another, fitting in with all and none at once. I guess I was a kind of social chameleon.

I’m not sure why I was this way. Maybe I was just indecisive. Couldn’t figure out who I wanted to be. I doubt very much I was the only one. For as long as I can remember, I’ve refused to allow anyone to pigeonhole me; I won’t be put into a box for your convenience.

Still, to this day, I feel that way. Do I write horror? Yes. Is that the majority of my output? Yes, it is. Do I also write fantasy, SF, magical realism, weird, slipstream, Bizarro, kid-lit, mainstream, pulp, mystery, and erotica? Yes…yes, I do.

Here’s the thing: I write the story I want to write. The one I wanted to read that no one has put down in words yet. The one that wants to be told. I don’t think about genre when the idea starts poking me in the brain. I don’t worry about to whom I’m going to sell it, or how I should market it. I don’t care. None of that matters at first. What’s important is the story. The characters whose lives are in my hands (poor things). These are the things on which I focus. This is where my energy goes. I let the story dictate the genre, or mixed genre, or utter lack of easily defined genre. I don’t care what it ends up being, as long as it’s the best story I can tell.

Only when it’s finished, when I’ve gone back and edited all the horrible, first-draft mistakes, polished it until it shines… only then do I start to think about where I can sell it. And, I’ve sold a lot of them, so this seems to be working out okay.

I don’t always do this, I have to admit. Sometimes, I’ll see an open call for a specific type of story, a theme. Sometimes, this will resonate with me and I’ll write something for it. Sometimes, it won’t especially resonate with me, but I know the editor is a good one, or the pay is high enough, so I’ll take a crack at it anyway. I’ve sold some of those too.

Sometimes, and I have to admit loving this, I will be invited to write for something. I always try to produce for those, because I’d like to be invited again at some point. If you are asked and blow it off, I imagine you will stop getting asked. I’ve sold one or two of these as well.

And, finally, sometimes I want to see a whole book out there for which I cannot write. When this happens, which has been precisely twice so far, I find a way to create it. I did this with BURNT FUR (Furry horror anthology from Blood Bound Books, and my first time curating a book), and I’m doing it now with STITCHED LIPS (horror anthology of oppressed voices). I feel this one is incredibly important. There are so many opportunities for me, a cis/het, white man in his fifties. I have no obstacles with which to contend, other than my own limitations of skill and talent. Doors open easily for people like me. So, I intend to hold that door for the people for whom it doesn’t open. I plan to keep it open as long as I can.

So, maybe this is who I am. Maybe I’m a chameleon because I want to be part of all the groups, and to be excited to be in the room, no matter where it is, or who else is in there with me. Maybe I’m a genre-jumper because I want to experience All the Things! I honestly have no idea why I’m like this. But, I love writing. I love supporting other writers. I love reading good books. I love it when something I wrote (or edited) touches someone, makes an impact. There is no greater pleasure for a writer, I think, than to have a reader reach out to tell you that your work meant something to them.

If you, like me, find yourself writing all over the genre map, maybe don’t worry about it too much. Maybe look at it this way: you’re keeping your readers on their toes. They won’t know what to expect next. As long as your style (that’s a whole different topic!) remains the same, I think you can write anything you want. Look at Neil Gaiman. His work is all over the place. But you can always tell it’s him. That’s the secret maybe. I don’t know. I’m no Neil Gaiman. I’m just a guy who feels comfortable hanging out with the jocks, the freaks, the weirdos, and the drama kids, or whatever equivalent exists in the grown-up world of writing and editing.

As always, thanks for listening.

Ken

Brain Babies: Embrace Your Muse

I like a lot of different kinds of music. In fact, the only kinds I’m not much fond of are Country and Opera, and there are exceptions there: I rather like “The Rodeo Song” and “Carmina Burana” for example. Everyone has different tastes. That’s what makes the world such a wonderfully rich and diverse place. You might love Country music but find the song I mentioned incredibly offensive, vulgar and sophomoric (I mean…it is. That’s what I like about it). You might love Opera but find Carmina Burana to be overly dramatic (though, let’s be honest here: pretty much all Opera is overly dramatic). You might think music from the 1980s is trite and obnoxious. If that’s the case, I’m afraid we can no longer be friends. That’s my era. It might be about nuclear war and rampant disease, but, damn it, you can dance to it!

The point is: the people making music have this passion they pour into it. They want to show the world the tune in their hearts. They know not everyone is going to like what they’re doing. Yet they put it out there, hoping it will resonate with someone, anyone. And this is exactly what we, as writers, need to be doing too.

Write the thing that pushes against your brain. The story that niggles at you, won’t let you sleep as you lay there, tossing, turning, sweating, fretting. The dark, nasty, little tale you’re dead certain will alienate friends and readers alike. The sweet, romantic romp that won’t leave you alone until you commit it to the page. Write what drives you. Write what makes your blood sing.

Do not, and I cannot stress this enough, write to sell. Do not write the popular thing (by the time it’s published, odds are it won’t be popular anymore). Do not write what you think people want to read. I know that sounds counterintuitive; it’s not. Of course, we want readers. We want people to get eyes on our work. But here’s the thing: if you try to write to please everyone, your work will be bland, washed out, boring. And boring? That’s the kiss of death.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: write the story you want to read. The story you wish someone had already written. Listen to your muse. They know what they’re about.

Speaking of, you’re not always going to have the muse leaning over your shoulder, whispering sweet, sweet ideas into your ear. Sometimes, you have to do the work on your own. You have to plant your butt in the seat and force the words onto the page. Sometimes, this is unbelievably difficult, I know. Sometimes, you just can’t. You stare at the screen or the paper and nothing comes. I get it. The best thing to do in those awful moments is to push the pen across the page anyway. Tap the keys. Whatever medium you’re using. Get the words out. They might be terrible words. Reading them later, you might cringe. But, here’s the thing: there might be a sentence in there, or even just part of one, where you strike gold. That makes it worthwhile. And here’s the best part: the more you do this, forcing the words out, the easier it gets. Pretty soon, you carve out five minutes from your busy day and you write a page of damn fine prose. You create a poem that, while maybe not rhyming yet or be quite on with the meter, has some gorgeous imagery. It speaks to you.

These are the baby steps you have to take in order to get to a place where the muse is there at your beck and call. Where the whisper is in your ear anytime you’re ready to listen. Because, I’ll let you in a little secret here: the muse is you. Your mind. Your subconscious. You’re inspiring yourself. Surprise.

So, yeah. Listen to the word music in your head. Whether it’s a catchy pop song, an intricate symphony, or a funeral dirge. Doesn’t matter. Someone out there wants to listen to it. Your music will resonate with some person. Hopefully, several people. Maybe hundreds, thousands, millions of people.

Doesn’t really matter how many are impacted by your voice. If even just one person is moved by something you wrote, you’ve accomplished something amazing. Words have power. Remember when you were a kid and you read something that blew your mind? Remember when an author scrambled your perception of the world and shook reality to the core? You can do that for a reader.

Keep plugging away, my friends. Put the words down. Make the music that is story. Don’t do this because you want to become rich or famous (even if you do want that; there’s nothing wrong with it). Do this because you have something to say. Do this because you must. Because your muse won’t let you do otherwise. Because you must.

Keep writing. You never know whose life you’re going to change. Even if it’s yours.

Thanks for listening.

Brain Babies: HAVE YOU EVER… Horror Writer Edition

HAVE YOU EVER… Horror Writer Edition

  1. Killed a character just for kicks?
  2. Cringed at something you wrote?
  3. Wanted to puke at something you wrote?
  4. Watched as your character just starting doing unspeakably horrible things to someone else and just kept typing/scribbling like, “I’m not responsible for this!”
  5. Decorated your house with horror paraphernalia, even if it’s nowhere near Halloween?
  6. Imagined someone you don’t like getting eviscerated?
  7. Written someone you don’t like getting eviscerated?
  8. Killed a friend in a story?
  9. Told your friend you were doing it?
  10. Named a character after another horror writer?
  11. Killed that motherfucker in the most heinous way possible?
  12. Written something you absolutely know is too nasty to sell?
  13. Sold it anyway?
  14. Written something so nasty you’re afraid to submit it for fear of what people will think?
  15. Submitted it anyway?
  16. Gleefully described something hideous you did to a character in conversation?
  17. Apologized for it?
  18. Actually scared yourself, at least a little?
  19. Had someone tell you that you should be ashamed of yourself?
  20. Grinned at them when they did?
  21. Defended the genre?
  22. Been in a morgue?
  23. Been in a coffin?
  24. Been inside a mausoleum?
  25. Seen a human corpse?

If you answered “yes” to 1-5 of these, you’re probably a nice, normal person who happens to write some disturbing things.

If you answered “yes” to up to 10 of these, you are probably taking this whole “horror” persona a little too seriously. It might be time for a vacation. Take a long drive. Spend some time in a remote location with a dangerously bipolar nurse.

If you answered “yes” to up to 15, you may have a real problem. There might actually be malevolent imps controlling your brain. There’s a small possibility you are destined for real-world evil.

If you answered almost or all of them “yes” you are a terrifying nutjob and people should run screaming from you on sight. The world should tremble at your very existence. You are doom personified.

Brain Babies: Level Up!

Level up!

By: Ken MacGregor

 

Okay, so this post is about getting your game face on, arming for war, mastering your craft, leveling the fuck up! I just finished a novel by an author I hadn’t read before. It was one of those things where a writer I respected was singing its praises so I bought a copy. You probably know that word-of-mouth is a writer’s lifeblood. This is exactly how it works. I saw someone else saying, “You have to read this!” and I said, “Okay.” Just like that. Cool, right?

So, this book, THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS, by this guy I’d never heard of (why hadn’t I heard of this colossally talented human being until now!?), Stephen Graham Jones, blew me away. So damn good. A gut punch so satisfying you can’t wait to get hit again. Wow.

So, naturally, after coming down from the initial high of a spectacular read, I think to myself, “If I were only half this good…” And, you know? I might be. Half as good. I’m getting better. I know this. People are buying, and raving about, my books. Pretty cool, right? But, he is So Much Better than I. He’s not the only one, obviously. There are lots of writers whose skill and mastery of language put me to shame. I don’t mind this though. I’m thrilled! Because I’m not just a writer, of course. I’m a reader too. And I love me some good books.

But it makes me think pretty hard about my own work. How do I get to that level? What can I do to be the kind of writer people read and shout, “Holy shit! Have you read the latest MacGregor? It’s off the hook!” People still say ‘off the hook’, right? I have a tween and teen in my house, so I’m utterly uncool now.

I honestly don’t have the answer to that. Except maybe I do. I don’t think there’s a magic wand you can wave, a potion you can drink, a deal with a demon, that will make me (or you) the kind of writer whose name appears on bestseller lists. I do think there are ways we can get there, incrementally. Pieces we can seek out and find places for in our writing puzzles. Insert your metaphor here.

One thing we can do, and this is great, because I know I’m already doing it, is to read damn good books, like the one Mr. Jones wrote. Incidentally, I’m going to read everything else he put out too, ‘cause…wow. In this way, we can see what good writing is, and strive to be on that level ourselves.

Another thing we can do is to read bad books. This is less fun. However, it does tell us what not to do, and that, too, is important.

You can read slush for a publisher. I have. It’s pretty awful sometimes. But, it gives you a great feel for what publishers go through, and some empathy for them. Also gratifying to know that a lot of what is getting submitted is way less quality than your own stuff. Big ego boost there.

Watch people, on TV, in real life (but carefully: you don’t want to be creepy about it). Observe posture, movement, facial expressions. Listen to how people talk. Take in their idiosyncrasies. All of this stuff, even if you don’t use it in the text, will help with characterization and dialogue. It helps your characters come alive. Just knowing how people do things will reflect in your fiction. You don’t have to spell it out. Maybe don’t. Keep it subtle. Subtle is better, almost always.

So, yeah. Read. Watch. Take feedback to heart when you get it. If your rejection has notes, read them. Incorporate them before subbing it again. Learn from your mistakes. And, over time, you’ll get better. I’ll get better. You’ll get more feedback with your rejections. You’ll get fewer of them, and (hopefully) more acceptances. You’ll start getting paid better for your work. People will ask you to contribute to their projects. All of these things have happened to me. I’ve been selling fiction for almost ten years now, and I finally feel like I might be getting the hang of it.

However, I still have so much to learn. I have so far to go. I’m not Stephen Graham Jones. I’m not Paul Tremblay, or Jonathan Maberry, or Tananarive Due. I’m certainly not Anne Rice or Stephen King. I’m Ken MacGregor though. And, I’m doing my damndest to be the best storyteller I can be. As should you. That’s the thing you can control. That’s the path to your success, or at least your contentment. Maybe. I think. I hope.

In my recent novel, the two main characters are discussing their enemy, a Master Vampire. One asks, “How you get to be a Master Vampire anyway?” The other says, “I don’t know. Ten thousand hours?” Put in the time. That’s how you do it.

Thanks for listening.  

Brain Babies: Following Guidelines

Definition of guideline

a line by which one is guided: such as

aa cord or rope to aid a passer over a difficult point or to permit retracing a course

ban indication or outline of policy or conduct

 

This is from Webster’s. A line by which one is guided. Think about that for a minute. When you follow a publisher’s guidelines, you are traversing the course they set out for you. This is good, because editors want to focus on the story; they don’t want to be distracted by outside factors. If you don’t follow the guidelines, it’s distracting. Also, it’s far more likely to get your work rejected. No editor wants to work with someone who can’t be bothered to follow the rules. I know this is true, because I’m also an editor.

Aside from publishers’ guidelines, we have our own, don’t we? We have a method by which we write. Sometimes, this means always being in the same place: your desk, a café (during non-pandemic times anyway), park bench, comfy chair in the living room (me), etc. Sometimes, it means following certain rituals: background music, coffee, alcohol, bag of Cheetos, etc. Sometimes, it means removing distractions. Sometimes, it means welcoming them. We all have different things that work for us. Different lines that guide us. That’s what this post is about.

I’ve read a shitload of books and essays about writing. I’m always interested in bettering myself. I want to be at the top of my game. I want each story to be better than the last. I’m not saying you have to be this way. It’s just how I roll. Now, a lot of what I read says pretty much the same thing, with subtle variations. Some of it resonates with me. Some, not so much. Most things about writing, especially when written by the pros, also says to take it all with a grain of salt. Nothing is gospel. Your mileage may vary.

This is really, really important.

You’re almost certainly going to struggle sometimes. We all do. Beginning writers feel like they’ll never be as good as their heroes. Midlist writers (like me) constantly wonder if what they’re doing is really worth taking money for (I just made that shit up! You’re paying me? Okay…sucker.) or if they’ll ever move up in the ranks of Real Authors. Will you become a household name? Will they make movies from your work? Will you be immortalized in print? Will you fade into obscurity, penniless and bitter, toothless and filthy, raging at the fools who don’t recognize your genius, only to be posthumously canonized and taught to college kids in a hundred years. I may have dwelt on this some. I know for a fact that even wildly successful writers suffer from imposter syndrome. I’ve heard this from their own lips. Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite, and unquestionably successful, writers admitted to feeling like he was getting away with something.

The thing is, folks, all of it is outside of your control. We all know that whether our stuff gets accepted, or rejected, or even read past the first line, is a crapshoot. There are ways to nudge your work in that direction, of course. You put in the time to learn your craft. You study good writers, you read books on how to write better. You research your material so it rings true. You find your voice (don’t ask me how; nobody knows). You get to know other writers who’ve been at this for a while and ask them for advice. And, because most of us are decent people, you get answers. You pay attention to feedback in your rejections. You learn from mistakes. You build relationships.

Important side-note regarding that last thing: do not attempt to get to know successful writers simply to further your own career. Do not use people as rungs on a ladder. This is painfully obvious when it’s happening, and nobody likes it. This will have the opposite of the desired effect. People won’t want to be around you. I’ve said it countless times, and I’m sure I’ll say it countless more: don’t be a dick. Cultivating relationships is just that: relationships. Getting to know people because you are interested in them as people. Because they are bright, witty, charming, quirky, funny, warm, genuine folks. Writers are some of the most fun people I know. Famous and otherwise, they are almost universally cool. And, most of them want to help new writers feel comfortable. They want you to do well. Really.

So, back to guidelines for a moment: a cord or rope to aid a passer over a difficult point. This, too, applies to writing. I can’t tell you how many times writing has saved my ass. I’ve had some bad knocks, as some of you know. Some staggering challenges have smashed into my life, and very nearly ended me. A lot of things helped get me through it: therapy, family, close friends, love, alcohol (though I’m done with that one), my kids. Writing helped a lot. A ton. I could articulate my pain in a way few people can. I had this outlet, this machine for catharsis, at my beck and call. And, I’ll be honest, I wrote a lot of really awful fiction during this time (even subbed some of it, to my embarrassment). I also wrote some of the best stories of my life. But, the point is, writing was my guideline; it got me past a difficult point.

So, yeah, when you’re submitting work to a publisher, you should absolutely follow their guidelines, and to the letter, no matter how asinine or ludicrous they may seem. They’re in there for a reason, even if that reason is to see if you’re paying attention.

But, also, follow your own guidelines. Be yourself. Revel in that. No one is you. Once you find your voice, no one writes like you. Own that. Have fun with it. If you feel lost or overwhelmed, along the way, reach out, and grab the cord of your drive to write. Seize the rope of your passion. Get past the difficult point and rock on.

We’re all in this together. I’ve got your back.

Thanks for listening.