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Pick a Card, Any Card: Guestblog by Rob M. Miller


Sideshow: an Anthology of Freakish Horror—latest call for submissions from Netbound Publishing, guest-editor Rob M.Miller, artwork by Melissa Stevens

My Guestblogger this month is Rob M. Miller, a multi-talented author, editor, and self-confessed story addict, as well as contributor to numerous anthologies, including the recent, much-acclaimed compilation of wolfen horror, I Believe in Werewolves. He is equally content (he says malcontent, as he becomes so caught up in his characters’ lives) writing, reading and re-reading new manuscripts alongside ‘classic’ genre traditions of suspense/thriller, macabre, mystery, dark fantasy, supernatural and sci-fi; he says his own characters are inspired as much by his mammoth reading exploits, as by the Muse(s) who inhabit the wild Pacific Northwest. He is currently guest-editor for Netbound Publishing who are calling for submissions until October 31st for their Sideshow: an Anthology of Freakish Horror, which he will co-edit. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Pick a Card, Any Card
The title of this piece is pretty familiar. If we haven’t actually heard it in the course of being part of a card trick, we’ve seen the scenario play out on film, or as part of a live audience.

Guestblogger Rob M. Miller shows his cards, shares his mentors—©Wildcard Comics, 1990 (US), Cover art by Jackson Guice,
Color by Alfred Ramirez

Makes a person wonder—makes me wonder—if card trick aficionados get bored watching such staple sleight of hand. And what of magicians? Do they yawn at the sight of a beautiful woman getting cut in half, or when the famous rabbit comes out of a top hat?

I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.

In 2009, I remember watching Judd Apatow’s comedically-disguised drama “Funny People,” starring Adam Sandler, Seth Rogen, Aubrey Plaza, and an army of others, and just being in stitches with the hilarious dialogue. Then it hit. The characters, when not performing on stage, weren’t laughing. These comedians, most of whom are comedians in real life, were NOT laughing. Instead, they might simply say: “Yeah, that was funny.”

Is that true to life?

With many endeavors, I think it just might be. How does one keep the magic magical? And not just to the general audience, either. How does a practitioner, an artist, keep that magic real, and real to his fellow magicians?

I can’t give an answer.

But it must be difficult, at best. After all, once you’ve peeked behind the curtain and really seen what’s going on, once the gears are spotted and the machine is understood, how can you honestly say the magic’s still there?

And yet, with reading, it is!

For more than twelve years, I’ve been practicing the craft of laying down words, of transporting readers to other worlds, into other people’s shoes, other sexes, times, circumstances, and moral bents. For many years, I’ve also been editing: genre-fiction, and non-fiction. I’ve learned many of the tricks; have certainly learned the jargon. Reading a work, I can recognize foreshadowing, can tell when I’m being manipulated to hate or love a character, or in some way identify with them. There’s quick recognition, too, when a book has two lines of suspense, or three, five, eight, or even more (yeah, thank you, Mr. George R.R. Martin). These lines are put down to manage characters, yes, but they’re also there to keep me turning the page.

With mysteries, it’s a quick spot that I’m being grounded in time and place, and if not quite yet with character, then certainly with event. Something bad has happened; usually there’s a body; and now, despite red herrings and/or MacGuffins, a person or a team has to find the culprit(s).

With thrillers, of course, it’s almost a reversal. Bad things are going to happen, and some stalwart champion, jaded anti-hero, or assembled squad must stop the bad folks from pulling it off.

There are tropes and cliché-ish plots—is there a plot that isn’t cliché?—whole lines of dialogue, or plot-turns that I can just call, with both books and film, and more often than not, be right (and, man-oh-man, how family members get irritated with that). I’m a veritable spoiler machine.

I think most long-term story addicts usually are. And certainly writers. It’s almost a given. Perhaps it is a given.

But, thank God, boredom isn’t. Or disdain. Or vitriol. Yes, it happens. We experience these things, and we read about them, and have been rejected because of them. Whether it’s someone’s Twilight novels getting hammered by the real vampire-lovers, or all the writers who’ve been putting out erotica for years, aghast at the thought that there are apparently millions who mistakenly think E. L. James invented the form.

Quite the contrary. The best of us writers, including the many who’ve written tomes of how-tos, or who have taught the craft of storytelling, from Stephen King with his Danse Macabre and On Writing, or David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing: A Novelist Looks at His Craft, the many works put out by Writer’s Digest Books, to the countless articles and essays put out by the mags: Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Poets & Writers, and more, have blown away the curtains, have reverse-engineered the machinery, laid out the schematics, spilled their guts (and those of others) on dialogue, characterization, description, the telling detail, the truth of weak words and power words, the hazards of adverbs, of too much of this, or too little of the other thing. Of a truth, every bit of nose-to-the-stone and shoulder-to-the-wheel has been committed to demystifying the writing and storytelling process.

And yet, all the books and seminars, workshops and boot camps, conventions and panels, all the teachers and texts and syllabi, to-do and must-never-do lists… despite all their individual and collective wondrous help, they have all—


Because the process is still mystical—still MAGICAL.


And why?

Because the magic’s real. It must be. What other explanation is there?

As unique as I am–and I am unique–I’m still only as unique as everyone else. And the magic still works on me.

Recently, after reading the third book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin (yes, I’m mentioning him again), I shot to Facebook, and messaged the sadist who wrote A Storm of Swords:

The Red Wedding … thanks, Mr. Martin. I don’t know whether to pen a piece of hate mail or send the most fawning of fan letters. But of a truth, there’s no crueler set of gods, old or new, than that of authors.

I stand by the line. The novel hurt me. Beautifully written, yes—hadn’t expected anything less—but I lost some friends. And reading on in the series, I’m sure to lose more—and I got mad. Hell, I’m still upset.

Gary Braunbeck, a master writer who also teaches the craft, brought me to tears with his work Mr. Hands, a rare occurrence when I read spooky books.

Tom Piccirilli, with FICTION, gave me genuine willies with his work The Dead Letters.

Every so many years, I re-read Stephen R. Donaldson’s series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and every time, I get mad NOT at the author (who’s really the one responsible), but at the character of Thomas Covenant, and all his doubting.

Annually, I read Morrell’s The Brotherhood of the Rose, and feel sorrow at the loss of Chris, with every reading, hoping in the back of my mind that perhaps this time, the man might be saved.

Post-apocalyptic horror fantasy, The Stand, (uncut hardcover, Doubleday 1990, 1152pp): King said exploding a bomb that killed half the cast was a device which saved the story

Five times so far, I’ve howled when nearly half my beloved characters are exploded away in King’s The Stand.

And let’s not even explore how I’m manipulated as a Bible-loving Christian. Thankfully, I’m un-churched, and don’t have to discuss why I cheer Dexter on, or think Hannibal the Cannibal is kinda cool … ’cause he only eats a-holes. Don’t have to worry about why I wouldn’t mind—if I had a cute puppy in hand—meeting Rex Miller’s Daniel Edward Flowers Bunkowski.

Humans, with their incredible science, can dissect a seed, identify all its parts, look upon it at the microscopic level, yet it cannot be put back together, planted, and be expected to produce anything living.

But with books, it happens. If not always, then often enough.

Stories live. Despite annotations and laborious page, scene and chapter breakdowns, they still manage to transport a reader. Even through multiple visits. And even with those who are in the know with the alchemy involved.

And they’re not always written by the greats, the successful, the famous. Sometimes the A-listers hit a foul or otherwise strike out. On websites like Short ’n Scary Stories, I’ve read incredible pieces by otherwise unpublished writers, even first-time writers. I’ve been moved by poetry in live crit-groups by people too scared to submit for general publication.

With all the rules, and more rules, and then even more, at best there’s only a general roadmap to pulling off the magic—and that’s being optimistic. There has to be a bit of knowledge, to be sure. But ultimately, this knowledge gets refined through a lot of failure, a lot of practice, and even then, for lack of a better word, there’s some extra-special something that’s present as well, some gift of Hermes that I can’t really define.


No trickery, sleight of hand; just indefinable magic

Some pull it off with their first attempt, whether their fellow writers like it or not: first-time breakout authors with work blazing across the reading landscape, making the rest of us who have been toiling for years grind our teeth. It’s not fair, yet it is, the mixing of admiration, jealously, frustration, and anticipation… because now I’ve got to read the work, too. I have to see how the elements were so successfully mixed, if not with the writing, then with the story.

With all I know, with all the secrets I’ve been exposed to: tricks, devices, paradigms, and sleight-of-hand, I can’t imagine ever becoming jaded. Oh, no. Instead, when it comes my turn to read, I’ll always remain a child, waiting for that rabbit to get pulled, my card to get picked. Even when I know the secret behind the act, for some still-mystical reason, I never get bored.

With comedians and magicians… with what they know, maybe they do.

Not with writers. Not when the work’s done well.

Because we love the magic.

We’re readers first and always.

And when we get together, you can tell. We’re always saying to one another: “Yeah, right, but have you read…?”
©2012 Rob M. Miller

Rob M. Miller, writer and editor, staunch supporter of his own inner child, lives in the Pacific Northwest, where he continues to enjoy reading and writing. His work can be found in various anthologies. Visit his site at And while you’re there, be sure to sign his guest book, the Robonomicon. Thank you, Rob.
Marian Youngblood
August 2012

August 26, 2012 Posted by | authors, blogging, culture, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Genre-Bender or just Plain Naïve?


NaNo keeps one at it, leaving little room for impromptu extras

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you
~ Ray Bradbury

It’s no surprise to anyone reading this blog — and coincidentally involved with Alex J Cavanaugh’s Insecure Writers’ Group — that November is a heads-down month for writers, authors, part-time-bloggers and scribes of every description. This covers those aspiring authors who blog in the bath, motived teenagers desperate to show they can break away from their school curriculum, to seasoned veterans like the icon quoted above (which, after February’s launch of his second book, CassaFire, will include our host, Alex). Hope he doesn’t mind being called a veteran, but I’m sure he won’t mind being thrown in with Ray Bradbury, 90!

This means that I, newbie NaNo-er only three years in, will make this particular blog shorter than my usual efforts — more inkeeping with my prolific (and self-disciplined) blogging buddies who seem capable of blogging day and night seven days a week for 365 days at a stretch. My headscarf is doffed to them, but I am the first to admit I usually only write when the Muse directs and, under normal circumstances — unless I’m NaNo-ing — I tend to wait for her signal.

This is probably naïve of me. But I admit to being naïve. There’s no point in pretending — particularly when it comes to writing and allowing the word to flow through the mind, down the arms, via hands and fingertips on to the blank page.

I am first to admit I still find the process miraculous. Almost like subconsciously intending to bathe, and five minutes later finding oneself soaking deep in the luxurious warm waters, without any recollection of having undressed, lit candles, found towel, shampoo and soap and turned on the taps to fill the bath. But I digress.

The same goes for knowing how to describe what I write. Naïve. On Twitter — which, as you know, requires a brief description in fewer than 140 characters to describe oneself and one’s tweets — I say I write New Age fiction. But, as far as I know, that isn’t a genuine genre. This was brought succinctly home to me when preparing my new profile and studying the genres suggested in this year’s NaNo — which, as you probably know, has put together a whole new user-friendly novel-conducive webpage, just to get us all fired up to CREATE for the next 30 days.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the genres in question — which have to be mentioned in query letters, and are important concerns to agents and publishers, the serious dramatis personae of the Publishing Industry — are not exactly well-defined. You are supposed to know. And sometimes trial and error is not an option open to you. If you have been writing query letters for the last six years and you’ve been describing your work as Sci-Fi and somebody *in the know* says they like your ‘Fantasy’ work, you swallow hard and start all over — with the knowledge that you’ve probably wasted a lot of time that could have been salvaged if you’d done your homework. Problem is, however much homework you do, it is still difficult to know the difference between ‘magical realism’ and ‘paranormal romance’. Well, maybe some of you experienced authors do know the difference. But, as I said at the beginning, I’m naïve. And it takes time — and loads of errors — to get it right.

So what do you think?

The genres which NaNo lists as ‘standard’ in this year’s contest are:

Adventure, Chicklit, Erotic Fiction, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Horror & Supernatural, Literary Fiction, Mainstream Fiction, Mystery Thriller & Suspense, Religious Spiritual & New Age, Romance, Satire Humor & Parody, Sci-Fi, Young Adult & Youth, and Other.

No Magical Realism, you’ll note.

When I first started out submitting queries, I was paralyzed by my inability to decide which genre my MS fit into. Being a Brit, it was, for me, even more daunting to read young American beginner writers (on Facebook and elsewhere) bandying about their knowledge of genres with fluent ease — as if I ought to KNOW. It has taken me a decade or two to calm down and use a couple of standards when querying.

Mt.Shasta's presence is awesome, even from a distance of 80miles, photo ©2008MCYoungblood

This quandary is purely self-inflicted, because I wrote historical non-fiction for years, before finding my voice in novels. Since the switch I have written not only historical romance, (Phantom’s Child, pictured below right) but also am blessed that my supernatural novella, Cockatrice is to be published early in 2012 by NetBound Publishing; and my New Age tome, SHASTA: Critical Mass, (sidebar-2, right, and pictured above) has been picked up by AllThingsthatMatterPress, also for publication in 2012. Two of my recent NaNo novels in the Green Turtle Cay series fall under the banner of fantasy, although they are borderline Sci-Fi.

So, you can see my dilemma. It might seem I have not yet honed myself — as any sensible person might — to fit one genre. It certainly makes for intrigue and change of pace. And it keeps me on my toes. But the question remains. How does one decide on one label, when so many strands and possibilities exist within a single manuscript which might make it more suitable under another?

In order to maintain my sanity — and because NaNo calls, which means I shall have to wind this up 🙂 — I blame the system that insists on labels. Bureaucracy in the microcosm. I may not like having to live with it, but live with it I must, if I wish to continue to write and be published.

Your opinions and personal experiences in this thorny field, dear Reader, are most welcome because, at this stage, I suspect I am not alone in this duel with the Publishing Powers-that-Be. Thanks for listening. And thank you, Alex, for allowing me another shot at these insecure blues…
©2011 Marian Youngblood

November 2, 2011 Posted by | authors, blogging, culture, novel, popular, publishing, writing | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments