The Scariest Part: Mark Allan Gunnells Talks About FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER

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This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is Mark Allan Gunnells, whose latest collection is FLOWERS IN A DUMPSTER. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Seventeen Tales to Frighten and Enlighten

The world is full of beauty and mystery. In these 17 tales, Gunnells will take you on a journey through landscapes of light and darkness, rapture and agony, hope and fear.

A post-apocalyptic landscape where it is safer to forget who you once were… An unusual support group comprised of cities dying of a common illness… A porn star that has opened himself up to demonic forces… Two men battling each other to the death who discover they have much in common… A woman whose masochistic tendencies may be her boyfriend’s ruin… A writer whose new friendship proves a danger to his marriage and his sanity.

Let Gunnells guide you through these landscapes where magnificence and decay co-exist side by side.

Come pick a bouquet from these Flowers in a Dumpster.

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for Mark Allan Gunnells. I think you’ll find it’s a fear many writers share:

For me, the scariest part of my short story collection Flowers in a Dumpster was the “pitch.”

I’m a writer who is used to letting my work speak for itself. I realize my writing may not appeal to everyone, but I strive to produce the best stories of which I’m capable and allow them to stand or fall on their own merit.

When Crystal Lake Publishing opened up for general submissions last year, I was very excited to submit a short story collection to them. They had quickly developed quite a stellar reputation, and I was impressed by how much they promoted their books. I was eager to work with them, and immediately starting putting together a manuscript of stories.

The catch came when I realized that the first step in the submission process was a “pitch.” They didn’t want to read any of my work initially; instead I needed to sell myself to them, convincing them that reading my work was worth their time.

I understand that this is a common practice in publishing, but I had never done a pitch before. In all my previous dealings with publishers, I’d simply submitted a completed manuscript and the publisher decided based on that. I had never had to entice a publisher, make my work sound appealing without giving them a sample of it. And quite frankly, I was terrified.

I love writing, and I believe in the stories I create, but I always feel a bit awkward talking about it. I don’t want to come off as too egotistical, and yet I also don’t want to undersell myself, and I find striking the balance between the two extremes a difficult one. I realized that with the pitch, I ran the risk of ruining my chances with Crystal Lake without them ever reading a single sentence of my fiction.

To be perfectly honest, I found the prospect of the pitch so scary that I almost didn’t even do it. I seriously considered not submitting because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make my work sound compelling enough. My fiancé and a good friend of mine talked some sense into me, so while the fear didn’t abate, I forged ahead crafting a pitch.

The instructions for the pitch laid out all the things I needed to include. I had to compare my writing style to that of known authors while also indicating what set my style apart from anyone else’s. I had to discuss things I’d done in the past and was open to doing in the future to promote my work. Since I wanted to submit a collection, I also had to include a brief synopsis of each story I planned to include in the manuscript.

I worked on this very slowly, going back and reworking certain aspects of the pitch, and finally finished at the very last moment, just before the deadline. I sent the pitch in to Crystal Lake, not expecting to make it to the next stage in the process. Whereas I feel confident with my fiction writing, I was most decidedly unconfident about my pitch. But for better or worse, it was done, and there was nothing to do but wait.

I was beyond ecstatic when I was told that they liked my pitch, and I moved on to the next round of the submission process which was sending them 3 short stories. Finally I felt back on sure ground, letting my actual work do the talking for me. Obviously, the release of Flowers in a Dumpster is evidence that they liked what my stories had to say and accepted the collection for publication.

Ultimately this has proven to be a wonderful experience, and I’m happy that I worked through my fear and sent in the pitch. And yet I won’t lie, it scared the shit out of me.

Mark Allan Gunnells: Amazon Author Page / Blog / Pinterest

Flowers In a Dumpster: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound

Mark Allan Gunnells loves to tell stories. He has since he was a kid, penning one-page tales that were Twilight Zone knockoffs. He likes to think he has gotten a little better since then. He has been lucky enough to work with some wonderful publishers such as Apex Publishing, Bad Moon Books, Journalstone, Evil Jester Press, Etopia, Sideshow Press, Great Old Ones Publishing, Sinister Grin Press, Crystal Lake Publishing, and Gallows Press. He loves reader feedback, and above all he loves telling stories. He lives in Greer, SC, with his fiancé Craig A. Metcalf.

Doctor Who: “Hell Bent”

I think season 9 of Doctor Who has generally been pretty strong. The strongest season in some time, in my opinion. The plethora of two-parters has really allowed the stories to breathe and develop much better, giving the characters and plots the time they need to properly establish themselves. It’s no coincidence that the two episodes I thought were the weakest of the season, “Sleep No More” and “Face the Raven,” were one-offs. (To be fair, I also thought the Zygon two-parter was a bit weak, but the presence of Osgood and the amazing ending make up for it. I doubt they would have had time for the Doctor’s incredible anti-war speech if it had been a one-off.)

And so we come to the end of this strong season with the episode “Hell Bent.” Of late, I find myself getting nervous for the season finales because Steven Moffat writes them, and he often seems far more concerned about flash and sentimentality than about stories making sense. So we get episodes with enormous plot holes in them, like “The Wedding of River Song,” with its cosmic insistence that the Doctor must die but it’s okay if a shape changing robot is destroyed in his place, and whose villain, Madame Kovarian, vanishes from the story entirely; and “The Name of the Doctor,” in which the Great Intelligence goes back through the Doctor’s timeline to do…something, and Clara follows him to do…something, and then there’s a spooky cave where the Doctor’s other incarnations run around or…something; and “Death in Heaven,” which involves the most overly complicated plan to create Cybermen ever, implemented by a character who has never had anything to do with the Cybermen whatsoever. So I was kind of nervous that “Hell Bent” would mess up an otherwise pretty stellar season.

It didn’t. Straight up, I liked this episode quite a lot. Yes, it has some startling plot holes, but generally its strengths more than make up for them. If this season is a sign of what’s to come, and I really hope it is, perhaps I don’t need to worry so much about Steven Moffat’s writing anymore. Because what I really liked about “Hell Bent” is how subversive it is.

*** SPOILERS FOLLOW***

What do I mean by subversive? It subverts every expectation we have of how things are going to play out.  Longtime readers know one of my complaints about Moffat’s writing is that he recycles the same stories over and over again. I thought for sure that was what he was doing here. First, with the Doctor telling the story of Clara to Clara in the diner, I assumed his plan to wipe her memory had succeeded and now he was doing the same thing he did at the end of “The Angels Take Manhattan,” where the Doctor goes to visit the young Amy and tell her stories about herself. Plus, the whole memory-wipe thing was itself a rehash of what happened to Donna (still my favorite companion of the new Who) at the end of “Journey’s End,” where he wipes her memory of her time with him to save her life. But it wasn’t any of those things! Quite brilliantly, Moffat’s script subverts all our expectations and leaves the Doctor as the one with his memories of their time together wiped. (Which leads to interesting questions about whether the story he’s telling her in the diner about their adventure on Gallifrey is accurate, but that’s a question that will only lead us down a rabbit hole we can never climb out of.) Also, I suspect that after seeing Clara at the diner and her face again on Rigsy’s memorial mural on the TARDIS, plus her note to him on the chalkboard, his memories may already be starting to come back.

Speaking of Gallifrey, holy shit we’re back on Gallifrey! I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since “The Day of the Doctor” two years go! To be honest, I was getting frustrated with how little effort the Doctor was putting into finding his home planet, but then, he’s always had a complicated relationship with his people. Even more complicated now that they tortured him for four-and-a-half billion years, but the Doctor essentially exiles Rassilon and takes over the planet in about five minutes, so there’s that. Just to make it even more fun, the Sisterhood of Karn is there, too. Ever since their introduction in the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Brain of Morbius,” there have been hints about their close relationship with the Time Lords, especially how they have used their immortality-granting Elixir of Life to help Time Lords through difficult regenerations (which we get to see in “Night of the Doctor,” where they help the Eighth Doctor regenerate into the War Doctor). Seeing them actually on Gallifrey was exciting, although I was surprised Rassilon, who seemed annoyed to see them, didn’t do anything to have them removed. We also get mentions of the Matrix, the Time Lord supercomputer where the minds of deceased Time Lords continue to exist, and the Shobogans, those Time Lord dropouts who live outside the citadel, both of which date all the way back to the 1976 Fourth Doctor serial “The Deadly Assassin.” Really, all we were missing were the Panopticon and the Doctor asking after Leela and Andred! (And maybe that mysterious woman who may or may not have been his mother in “The End of Time.”)

Other things I enjoyed in “Hell Bent” include seeing Ashildr again, sitting in the ruins of Gallifrey at the end of time. (I only wish Sam Swift had been there with her. What happened to him? I suppose we’ll get a tie-in novel detailing his story at some point.) She gets some of the best lines right at the end, where she takes the Doctor to task for trying to negate Clara’s noble sacrifice, thereby taking away her agency and making it all about what the Doctor wants. I also liked that they brought up the possibility of the Doctor being half human again, which was first mentioned in the 1996 TV movie, but without making a big deal out of it. The Doctor’s question after Ashildr brings it up, “Does it matter?” is the perfect response. Yeah, I think it’s a silly idea and have thought so for the past nineteen years, but it doesn’t really matter. Also, we get a new sonic screwdriver, which I hope means we can say goodbye to those awful sonic sunglasses! How I cheered when it appeared!

But perhaps the most wonderful thing of all about “Hell Bent” is the other TARDIS. The bare-bones TARDIS that looks like the one the First Doctor took from Gallifrey. The one Ashildr and Clara are now presumably piloting around the universe, its broken chameleon circuit leaving it stuck in the shape of an American diner. (Perhaps all Type 40 TARDISes suffer from faulty chameleon circuits?) I loved that ending. It reminded me pleasantly of the ending of “The Doctor’s Daughter,” where Jenny sneaks off to explore the universe (“What are you gonna do, tell my dad?”). I find myself quite unexpectedly happy that Ashildr is still around after the end of this season, that she didn’t turn out to be the Big Bad, and that she can return for drop-ins later. (Clara can too, ostensibly, but I’d be okay with not seeing her again. No disrespect to Jenna Coleman or her legions of fans, but I was over Clara two seasons ago.)

But as amazing as the ending is, it leads directly to the plot holes I mentioned above. If the Doctor isn’t the Hybrid, and if Ashildr isn’t the Hybrid, if the Hybrid really is some vague, half-formed idea of the Doctor and Clara together, what does that mean? The prophecy says all sorts of terrible shit is going to happen because of the Hybrid, but we don’t see any of it. It’s not like Clara started to go power mad and blow shit up and kill innocent people. Her “going too far” consisted of sacrificing herself for someone else, which is a noble thing, not a terrible one. His “going too far” consisted of trying to save her from that fate, which is also a noble thing. Although I suppose shooting the unarmed General counts as going too far. But even then, as far as we can see there are no real consequences other than the General using up a regeneration. And that’s a big problem. We’re told bad things will happen because of the Hybrid, but we never see these bad things occur. We don’t even hear about them second-hand from Ashildr at the end of time. She could have been like, “Yeah, after you saved Clara every star in the universe blew up and cats were born with two heads,” but there’s not even that. There seem to be literally no consequences to this at all. Which also leaves me wondering what the consequences of Clara being taken out of time for who knows how long will have for Rigsy. Do things proceed as before from his point of view? (It must if his mural is still on the Doctor’s TARDIS.) Also, Ashildr seems pretty okay with Clara putting off going back to her fate for an indefinite amount of time despite chastising the Doctor for trying to stop her from dying.

There’s also a problem, for me at least, with the Doctor’s new reason for having left Gallifrey all those centuries ago. He claims he was a student at the Academy when he heard about the Hybrid from the cloister wraiths (a cool new addition!) and that he was so frightened by it he stole a TARDIS and fled Gallifrey. But this doesn’t quite match up with what we already know. The First Doctor was considerably older than a student (some studious fans have placed his age at 236 when he leaves Gallifrey) and he didn’t leave alone. He brought Susan, his granddaughter, with him (1963’s pilot episode “An Unearthly Child”), as well as the remote stellar manipulator called the Hand of Omega (1988’s Seventh Doctor serial “Remembrance of the Daleks”) and the destructive living metal validium, which the early Time Lords had created to defend Gallifrey (1988’s Seventh Doctor serial “Silver Nemesis”). It’s hard to match all this up with this new addition to the canon.

But enough of my nitpicks. I liked this episode, and this season as a whole, very much. Interestingly, someone online somewhere mentioned that “Hell Bent” can be seen as a sort of soft reboot of Doctor Who, and I tend to agree. Gallifrey and the Time Lords are back in the Doctor’s life, and that will change everything fundamentally from where the show was when it came back in 2005. I think next season is going to be very interesting indeed.

The Scariest Part: John Goodrich Talks About I DO TERRIBLE THINGS

Terrible Things Cover

This week on The Scariest Part, my guest is John Goodrich, whose latest novel is I Do Terrible Things. Here’s the publisher’s description:

Donna doesn’t know the old man with the sad face and yet there she is, beating him to death with a shovel. Is suppressed rage making her murder people in horrifying ways, or is she some sort of latent psychopath? The more people she kills, the more desperate she becomes to stop herself. Can she find the key before she commits yet another gruesome murder?

And now, let’s hear what the scariest part was for John Goodrich:

What sets you off? Really sets you off? Pushes you straight past angry into furious, even to that place when you can visualize killing someone? I bet there’s a couple of things you’re thinking about right now. We all have them. A subject, a person, something that gets under your skin and raises your blood pressure instantly. Being enraged enough to kill is a classic of the horror genre, going back to Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” and even further. That rage can be cold and calculating, like Montresor, or it can be wild and furious, as in Poe’s lesser-known “Hop-Frog.”

Can you imagine yourself actually doing it? The rush of rage, the burning need to do something leading you to a desperate act. There’s something seductive about it, being pushed too far. It’s liberating. We spend a lot of our time ignoring the slings and arrows of injury and insult, and it builds up. So it’s not difficult to make a character taking their revenge sympathetic.

But how to make a protagonist, in I Do Terrible Things her name is Donna, sympathetic if she lacks that motivation? If the story just starts out with her beating someone with a shovel, with no clear reason? And not only does the audience not know why, she doesn’t either. It’s a great hook, but how do I make Donna someone the reader is interested in following? It’s the writer’s job to take the reader down paths they don’t expect, and I’m trusting the reader on this one. I didn’t feel the need to make Donna as instantly understandable as my protagonists have been in the past.

I also want the reader to feel the disconnect between the usual revenge tale and what Donna is doing. To make it hit home, the violence had to be realistic. Realistic violence often gets labelled as brutal, since audiences are used to network TV’s non-messy action. So the blood pumps, bones break, skin chars, and Donna has a hard time dealing with it. Because very few people can beat a man to death with a shovel and not be affected by it.

With the need for graphic violence and a lessened need to make Donna completely agreeable, I was left with the question of how far I could go with the blood. I’ve written action, but never before with the intent to make it disturbing or graphic. So I wrote what I thought was necessary, and as I did so, the violence got very dark. Not because I was escalating, but because there are so many different and horrible ways to kill people. There had been lines I told myself I would not cross, and in the course of writing, I had crossed them. As I pushed my personal comfort zone, I wondered how far I would go. Would I be writing splatter like Brian Keene? Wrath James White? Ed Lee?

It turned out that I was writing like myself. That was the scariest part. That I wrote it. Yes, I had influences, but I had intended for the book to go in that direction from the beginning. This violent book grew entirely out of me. I wrote the scene where Donna slams a guy’s face down on a hot barbecue grill. The part where she smashes a guy’s head in with a baseball bat? That was me. To see someone who wrote something disturbingly bloody and brutal, I just look in the mirror. It’s all me.

John Goodrich: Website / Facebook / Twitter

I Do Terrible Things: Thunderstorm Books

John Goodrich has written a dozen short stories in such anthologies as Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, Steampunk Cthulhu, and the Fossil Lake trilogy of anthologies. I Do Terrible Things is his second novel. He lives in Shirley Jackson’s corner of Vermont, which should be inspiration enough for anybody. His current writing technique involves smashing his head against the keyboard.

 

 

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