Wednesday, October 24, 2012

New in the MADHOUSE: John Edward Lawson

INTERVIEW: John Edward Lawson

• When did you start writing? Why did you pick the genre you write it?

I've always written stories to amuse myself and my friends, and created games, and when I was older I was the dungeon master / storyteller in role playing. On top of that I was lucky enough to be accepted for an accelerated program in intermediate and high school which focused on media and literature. Eventually, at age 25, I threw myself into writing full time. Initially this was in the field of screenwriting, then articles, but over those first couple years fiction and poetry eventually crept in. I've always felt that in the pain of our existence we find truth, so I gravitate to horror, which in turn lends itself to poetry and short fiction.

• Where do you get your ideas from? Do you journal at all?

I used to journal in the beginning, but there are too many ideas and not enough time--I'm better off just going straight to the actual composition if I'm going to be writing at all. I tend to draw motivation from things I dislike, so living in this world I've got no end to concepts. Furthermore, you learn the more you do this the more easily ideas come, the more rapidly things string together in a complete story thread. I usually cannot write fast enough to keep up with the flow of ideas, and when I'm not in a position to write I've grown accustomed to just letting ideas go.

• What's a normal (writing) day like for you?

My words have to fit around family life. Typically I'll get up around three or four in the morning, bang out 1k-3k words depending on the project, then handle correspondence, research, publicity, and editing between errands, managing my son, and cleaning, fixing diner, etc. I also read daily in order to provide blurbs, judge contests, provide critiques for author friends, or evaluate submissions to Raw Dog Screaming Press. I might get to read a published book as leisure reading once every couple months or so.

• Favorite author or book? Who are you currently reading?

Chuck Palahniuk might be my favorite author, still. For my favorite book I'd go with Sylvia Plath's The Collected Poems. I'm preparing to read Pins by Jessica McHugh, and am looking forward to reading Mary Robinette Kowal's trilogy published through Tor. Had to restrain myself because I want to wait until the third is published, or at least close to published, because knowing her writing I will be compelled to read straight to the end without stopping.

• Do you prefer writing poetry or prose? Why one over the other?

My favorite form is the screenplay, but there's no point in it. As for poetry or prose...I like the immediacy of poetry, in terms of completion, and also enjoy being able to play with language as I do not possess a literal mind. On the other hand, you're pretty limited in exploring concepts. I enjoy the prose poem best of all because of that.

• Do you write in silence or with noise (tv, movies, music)?

Music, always. For longer works like novels, screenplays, and novellas I'll have a set list for establishing the mood, the feel for characters and setting. I use this for training myself to slip back into the mindset this way, instead of sitting back down to a work and feeling disjointed, having to rebuild that connection all over again. Usually for short stories and poems there's a particular artist or genre I'll stick with. Strangely when I'm doing Lovecraftian stuff it works best to use dark drum and bass DJs.

• Do you have any weird habits when it comes to writing? Do you type or write longhand?

When I first started writing I 1) had to be hot, and 2) had to be nude. Probably the first time I've said that publicly. I'm fortunate enough to have been doing this 13 years and have trained myself--long ago!--to, at the very least, write with my clothes on. In the early days I was in a reverse situation from my current one, which required composition late at night before going to sleep, without access to a computer. The next day I'd go in to my recording studio and type in my handwritten pages between sessions. Sometimes I'd be doing 15 pages by hand per night. It's more efficient to work on a computer, though, especially considering the typing classes I took in high school.

• Would you consider yourself a Plotter or a Pancer? Why does one work and the other doesn't?

Plotter, now, although I'm not one by nature. I love following the characters as would a reader, and being surprised by what happens next, which should of course be an organic, logical evolution as things build. However...that approach sucks when you're trying to meet the word counts for anthologies and magazines. You need to plot that bad boy out if it needs to happen within a limited amount of space. For longer works, well, if you're doing even experimental novels you have a rough idea of what's happening because you've got characters and something you intend to happen to them. So you know a certain set of things will happen, maybe not when or how, but you've technically got a rough outline. And I've done plenty of that, taking the artsy-fartsy route. Now I'm doing much more commercial novels and there is a very rigid format regarding plot points and pacing, a process I always detested previously, but it's like learning a new poetry form to play with. Turns out I enjoy constructing novels on this grid, which opens up unlimited vistas for emotional devastation. Even just saying those words brings such a huge smile to my face!

• What do you think is the hardest aspect of the craft?

Time is my enemy. There's never enough time. Only a tenth of my concepts will ever be completed. Perhaps that's for the best, though. If it's not good enough to demand my attention with the limited time I've got maybe I shouldn't expect readers to expend their own limited time reading it. I don't know. Here's something real, though: while your words may be immortal you are not. Work. Work harder, and in doing so learn to work faster. Everyone and everything you know endeavors to hinder this process. You can't pay attention to the failures and the rejections and the haters, the dismissive friends and family or the critical authors and instructors and coworkers who would shut you down, turn you away from this field. You also can't pay any attention to the successes, the acceptances and award nominations and fan letters and fellow authors drooling over your work. The only thing that matters is the work itself. Getting it down and getting it out, to rely on yourself and only yourself in this fashion, that's actually the hardest part, and the easiest part because it's addictive. Yet it goes against all our training as children and young adults. We're meant to fit in and take external direction for a limited amount of time each day, but with writing you have to be internally motivated and it never ends.

• Current projects?

I'm happy to be working on a collaborative novel which serves as a sequel of sorts to "Herbert West--Reanimator." That's still in its early stages. Beyond that I'm finishing off the Sin Conductor novel, which is a sort of postmodernist erotic horror I've been building and rebuilding for a decade. After that I'm preparing for the Year of Rage Part 2. The Year of Rage is something I did to establish myself early in my career. Basically I set out to complete a poem, story, or chapter every day for a year. It was so successful--and I started racking up so many publishing credits--that I decided to increase the challenge level about halfway through. To do so I decided to not only complete a piece every day, but also submit something every day. This time around I think I'll aim for 10 poems a day. Not easy stuff either, maybe double acrostic pantoums featuring multiple rhyme schemes and the like. Right now you're likely thinking, "Yeah, 3,650 poems in a single year. That sounds legit, bro!" Anyway, the Year of Rage 2 will begin in November. Of course I've got submissions brewing for five or six anthologies, so wish me luck there! For editorial projects I'm lucky enough to co-edit the Miseducation of the Writer anthology with Chesya Burke and Maurice Broaddus. It is a collection of essays by authors of color from across the spectrum of speculative fiction, to be published by Guide Dog Books. In other nonfiction my column with Inveterate Media Junkies is about to launch, in which I'll be profiling both authors and publishers who are defining what course contemporary literature will take. I have much bigger project in the works as well, one that will require some international travel to complete, but it's all a bit too secret to divulge more info at this point.

• How do you balance being an editor and being a writer?

Being an editor certainly helps advance your craft as a writer. When you are divorced emotionally from the material it can be easier to dissect things at the line level, or in terms of plot development, character development. You become a student of what works or doesn't work in these manuscripts. It is time consuming, and does not feel nearly so rewarding as completing or publishing a work of your own. The best money I've made in this business has been in freelance editing, though, so it's a trade off. Overall I try to restrict the amount of editing I'll commit to, because doing too much limits my own creative efforts, and trying to edit when you've got that frustration bearing down on you can make it difficult to stay professional--and unfortunately in many projects any semblance of professionalism rests entirely on you, not the client. The most common pitfall of the author-editor is attempting to make the work of others conform to your own sense of aesthetics or artistic ideals. When reading manuscripts I'm always mindful of what the author's intent is, and try to help them achieve that.

• What do you think people expect from you with your writing? EX: Can they always count on a good gross out?

Hmm. Once upon a time I was the "bad boy," but since 2004 I've endeavored to work without profanity, explicit violence, or explicit sex. For the most part I've been successful. Doing so forces me to get inventive if I hope to elicit nausea, nightmares, and a general need to distance oneself from the human race. So people seem to expect unusual concepts, and not only are accepting of the fact I'll deliver something different than I have previously, but they expect it. In this way I'm incredibly lucky, as so many authors are painted into a corner creatively.

• Advice for aspiring writers?

Nobody sits around saying, "Wow, that was so UNDER the top I loved it!" Go for it. No matter how ridiculous it seems, or impossible. You know that little voice telling you to give up? It'll always be there; it's a part of your mortality. Cultivate all the other voices, your characters. Let them be vibrant and alive enough to drown out your mortality. Oh, and just because writing is a solitary field that doesn't mean you should sit in your house forever, or your coffee shop. Go to all the conferences and events you can. Get involved. Network. The best way to do this is to be an editor of some sort, as you're building your publishing career and networking simultaneously. And stop listening to advice from authors like me. Just do it, and don't stop. Keep it up long enough and you'll be one of "the people" in the scene, as it's all just a battle of attrition.

List of publications:

New Mosque City
Last Burn in Hell

Lawson vs. LaValley (with Dustin LaValley)
Discouraging at Best
Pocket Full of Loose Razorblades

The Troublesome Amputee
The Plague Factory
The Horrible
The Scars are Complimentary

Illustrated Books:
A Child’s Guide to Death (with Dustin LaValley, Darin Malfi, and Mark Sullivan)

As Editor:
Tempting Disaster
Sick: An Anthology of Illness
Of Flesh and Hunger: Tales of the Ultimate Taboo

Novelettes & Novellas:
The Non-Duality of Elanoir (in Death to the Brothers Grimm!)
The Curious Urologist (in Ice Picks: Most Chilling Tales From the Ice Plaza)
Truth in Ruins (in the Bizarro Starter Kit: Orange)
Jagged Desire (in Demonology: Grammaticus Daemonium)

Author bio:

John Edward Lawson has published nine books, seven chapbooks, and over five hundred works in anthologies, magazines, and literary journals worldwide. He is a winner of the Fiction International Emerging Writers Competition, and has been a finalist for the Stoker Award and Wonderland Award. Other nominations include the Dwarf Stars Award, the Pushcart Prize, and the Rhysling Award. As a freelance editor he has worked for Raw Dog Screaming Press, Double Dragon Publishing, and National Lampoon, has edited seven anthologies, and served as editor-in-chief for The Dream People literary journal. He lives near Washington, DC with his wife and son.

Check him out on Twitter: @bizarroguy
Check him out on Facebook

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


Sir John Edward of Lawson infected me (like I always knew he would,) and now it’s my turn to spread the disease. Basically, it involves searching for the first use of the word “look” in your work in progress, then pasting that paragraph, and those immediately before and after, on your blog, after which you spread the disease to five other authors.

EXCERPT from my novel: INSIDE OF ME
She closed her eyes and thought back to the summer nights when she used to watch him shoot in the back yard. Six shots. Dead center. Every time. The man was a machine, and if those empty beer cans had any say in the situation, they would have gotten a better job. Her dad might not have been much, but he was a good shot. She couldn’t say she was surprised when the cops told her that he died instantly. One bullet to the side of the head was all it took. Like she always knew, he was a good shot. 

Standing there in the darkness, she looked up at Jason’s house and wondered what her father thought about the moment before he pulled the trigger. His rage? His eagerness for death? Or did he think of her?  

Rhea gripped the gun a little harder and promised herself that she would be the last thing Jason thought of before he died.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Writing is easy. All you have to do is write.

Last week during a tutoring session, I was helping a student with an argumentative essay about how writing is similar to the thematic elements in Stephen King’s short story, “Survivor Type.” While we were talking about the craft and what it means to be a writer, I revisited a lot of material and advice that I got from King’s novel, On Writing, and then reflected on how my lifestyle has changed since starting the Writing Popular Fiction program at Seton Hill. 

Needless to say, I’ve done a 180.

Graduate school kicks my ass every day. I feel guilty when I sleep because I feel like I should be writing, and when I dream, it’s normally about Hell so I don’t have pleasant dreams. I write about 4-5 hours a day, normally a combination of time spent between poetry and my novel, and I have a serious coffee addiction. I carry around a notebook with me in case something brilliant pops into my head when I’m not at my desk, and that same head is usually crammed in a book studying fiction and the various genres I want to write in. Hell, I even read when I’m on the treadmill now. And if I’m running fast, I have the Audible app playing on my iPhone.   

So what does that say about me (other than I’m certifiably insane)?

It says that I’m a writer…and I’m serious about writing.

Writing isn’t easy, and I don’t appreciate it when people make the assumption that it is. It’s offensive to the craft and to all of the people that spend hours slaving away at their art. If you’re not 100% committed to turning your life over for the sake of a story, then newsflash! You’re not a writer. Writing isn’t something you can do half-assed (unless you count Twilight). There’s no such thing as coming to a blank page lightly. In reference to the blank page, King writes:

I’m not asking you to come reverently or unquestioningly; I’m not asking you to be politically correct or cast aside your sense of humor (please God you have one). This isn’t  a popularity contest, it’s not the moral Olympics, and it’s not church.  But it’s writing, damn it, not washing the car or putting on eyeliner. If you can take it seriously, we can do business. If you can’t or won’t, it’s time for you to close the book and doing something else. Wash the car, maybe. (107)

If that passage makes you think twice about picking up a pencil, then writing isn’t for you. I’ve wanted to write since I’ve been eight years old, and not just because I was bored and felt like it would be something to pass the time. I love language, and a good story, whether it’s romance, horror, or science fiction, can and will make me cry if it’s done well and I fall in love with the characters. That’s how I knew writing was for me. I wanted to emulate that feeling. I wanted to make people scream, cry, fall in love, and escape. I wanted to create, and I wanted to do it every day.

Hence the purpose of this blog entry.

If you don’t want to think twice about whether the person getting stabbed in the chest in a particular story is you, then here are some things that you should NEVER say to a writer. 

1. I have some extra time on my hands. I think I’ll write a book.
(Oh please do! I hear it’s really easy and takes no time or previous thought at all!)

2. When are you going to get a real job?
(You’re right. I’ve spent 6.5 years in school to do absolutely nothing with my degree.)

3. Are you still writing those silly poems?
(Are you still dating that douchebag?)

4. I have a story idea for you.
(Do tell, because it’s not as if I have any ideas that are worthy of writing down.)

5. Make me a character in your book.
(Make me a sandwich? What? That came off as offensive?)

Okay, so I’m making fun of a serious situation. But really, people. Don’t make light of the craft, and you’ll never have to worry if the brunette running from the axe-wielding maniac is you.  Which let's be honest, it probably is.

Stay Scared,
Stephanie M. Wytovich
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. New York: Scribner, 2000. Print.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Part 2: Hunting Ghosts in West Virginia

Psychiatric Wards have a bad reputation because people always assume the worst when they’re mentioned. Patients are said to be admitted or thrown in, never checked in willingly or without force. They are permanent places for the deranged and the mentally instable. Not temporary residences for the sick. I’m drawn to them because I know not everyone in them was ill, and that some of them were as sane as you and I. But we don’t really have control over how others perceive us, now do we? Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Saying the wrong words to the wrong person….

Or being at the mercy of the Warden.

A lot of the patients at the West Virginia Penitentiary battled delusions and hallucinations, but not because of a mental disorder. These inmates were abused, tortured, and drugged. They were experiments and play things to the very people that were supposed to protect them and make them well. Some of them came into the infirmary because of fights or rape, and then were transferred to the Ward for further testing when their worlds became a little fuzzy. Treatments like Electric Shock Therapy or Hydrotherapy were used in attempts to make the inmates docile and tame. When electricity or submergence in ice, cold water didn’t work, they locked them up in solitary and starved them to sanity. Or death. Whichever came first. 

So maybe Psych Wards have their reputation for a reason.

It’s easy to mess with the insane when you know no one will believe a word out of their mouths.

It’s full proof.

But in the world of the paranormal, spirits get attached. Especially when they meet an untimely, unprecedented death. The men that were murdered and tortured within the walls of that hospital remain in their rooms, their cells, waiting for a chance to strike back. They’re not happy, they’re not friendly, and they certainly do not wish to do you well.

Sounds like the perfect introduction to Hell, no?

When we walked up the stairs to the infirmary, there was a drastic temperature change. I can’t say that it was due to spiritual activity, but I can say that it made the entrance into the sanatorium much more intense. There was a long hallway inviting us to the Ward, but we took our time with the rooms. Doors marked “Treatment Room” and “Clinical Laboratory” enticed me in with promises of the damned, and when I opened the doors I was met with stretchers, tubs filled with electrical cords, and treatment chairs. Various types of medical equipment lined the walls and I could almost hear the screams of the people that were strapped down like four-pointed stars while electrodes were strapped to their heads.

We moved into the sick room where most of the people died.

The air was thick with illness, but we got no response from its inhabitants.

So we moved to the Ward. 

Now I think that I can handle a lot. I’ve done investigations before and have even orchestrated ghost tours at Nemocolin Castle, but believe me when I tell you that I have never been so scared when working with the paranormal. Or felt so threatened.

Most of our time in the Ward was spent in solitary where we sat next to the individual cells and questioned the patients. We primarily worked with EVP and the K-2 Meter, but towards the end we didn’t need devices to pick up activity. It was plain as day.  There were three of us girls in that room and the rest of our team was on the opposite wing of the prison, so there was no way that our results could have been tampered with…and I tell you with all the truth in my heart, that we were not alone up there.

Someone walked the halls, whistling.

There were bangs as if someone were rattling the cells and trying to get out.

I hit the ground on several occasions, some due to the excess amount of bats in the Ward, some due to the fact that the cell door in Solitary started to shake.

We asked if someone was there and was answered by two, loud bangs….but they didn’t stop. They echoed and continued around the room as if the spirits were mocking us with a never-ending spiral of noise. I wanted to leave but was afraid to step out of the room. What was the lesser of the two evils? Solitary or the main hall of the Psychiatric Ward? Either way I moved, I was in their home. Trapped and at the mercy of their doing.

I have never felt such relief as I did when I left that place.

As inspired and excited as I was to be in the setting where the stuff I write about actually happened, I’ll be the first to admit that the horrors that walk within those hallways are not the stories made up by writers like myself.

The dead walk.

And if you’re brave enough, sometimes you can even follow them.

**All pictures are property of Crystal Vines, Paranormal Investigator with Louisiana Spirits

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Context Convention 25: SF, Fantasy, and Horror

Context Convention 25

Columbus, Ohio

Last weekend proved to me (yet again) why writers are easily the most wonderful people in the world: (1) We never run out of stories to tell (2) We have no shame and look at each embarrassing moment as an opportunity for yet another good story and (3) When you put all of us together, there’s no telling what is going to happen other than sheer brilliance at its best.

I had the pleasure of seeing old friends and catching up over the months after residency, and meeting new friends and creating memories that will last me well throughout life. But beyond the drinks, the laughs, and the 50 Shades of Red I turned, the wealth of information that I learned about the field and the industry made the experience well worth the four hour drive that I did on eight hours of sleep over a three day stretch.

But that’s what coffee is for.

And 5 hour energy drinks.

I want to talk a little bit about the workshops that I attended because if I’ve learned anything over my time at Seton Hill, it’s that discussion is vital when learning about and honing your craft.  

Michael Knost, recipient of the Bram Stoker Award for his nonfiction collection Writers Workshop of Horror, spoke about the benefits of collaborating with a small press and how to paint your setting into something that people cannot only see, but feel as well.  I found both lectures very insightful, not to mention helpful as I find myself consistently impressed by how much I don’t know about the industry.  It was wonderful to hear about the advantages with working with a small house and I feel that I will be looking to them as a first resort when it comes to that time in my career. Hearing about all of the thought and PR that goes into the author’s finished product because it’s a more close-knit, personable relationship makes the marriage between publisher and author sound more homey than getting into a company that only knows you as a name.

In regards to setting, Knost gave a lot of examples of how to make the background come alive. He talked about the importance of active voice, warned against POV shifts, and advised using mood as a strip tease to the setting itself (See Michael A. Arnzen’s article “The Element of Surprise: Psyching-out Readers of Horror, Mystery and Suspense” in Many Genres, One Craft). In this case, less is more. Yet even still, I’ve been having some trouble with world building and getting my HELL to be just the way that I want it, and something Knost said will stick with me each time I sit down to work on my novel: “Every time you have purple prose, you’re taking yourself out of the story and saying look at me!”  

Remember that.

There’s no reason to show off.

The image should speak for itself and you should be using the most vivid details possible to get it there.

Lawrence C. Connolly, a dear friend and one of the most talented writers I know, spoke about the importance of endings and beginnings.  What I love about his workshops is that they are hands on and he has you writing and learning as the seminar takes off. He started out by reading the beginning of Voices (nominated for the Bram Stoker Award), and had us rewrite the opening sentence in our own way while keeping in mind place, character, conflict, momentum, mystery and style. Easy enough right?


I’m a firm believer that the beginning of a novel sells the reader on the story and most of the time, that’s through a hook or a tragic statement. For instance, my favorite opening line is from Ellen Hopkins’s novel, Crank: “Life was good before I met the monster.”

Why does this work?

Well, right from the start we know that the story is being told in first person POV (thus establishing our main character), and it’s implying that life was at one point good, until something horrible and destructive came along, hence the conflict. The place hasn’t been pinpointed, but because Hopkins is leading us in with a sense of mystery and awe, as reader’s we can assume she’s going to hold our hands through the character’s life until the monster, an ambiguous force, knocks he/she/ or it down. Momentum? Without a doubt. Don’t you all want to know who or what the monster is, and how he/she/or it came into contact with it?

It took me three days to write the first sentence of my novel.  
It's not as easy as it looks.

Connolly also talked about the Three Act Structure to plotting your novel and ended the workshop with a fitting discussion on endings. He gave some great advice on how to wrap up the story whether it be by presenting a final image or returning to an element of the opening scene, but what has stuck with me even after leaving the classroom is when he said that the ending is what sells the next book. So make it count.

The last workshop that I attended was on Flash Fiction with Gary A. Braunbeck, Bram Stoker Award Winner for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. I took pages of notes, which is ironic for a topic that only covers 500-900 words, but I’ve found that it’s usually the smaller works of fiction that are more challenging to me. Some great quips of advice for the market are: (1) Start in the middle, (2) Build on public knowledge, (3) Use small ideas, (4) Avoid complex plots, and (5) Write each piece to stand on its own.

Braunbeck also stressed the importance of removing all unnecessary plot twists and character arches because when it comes to flash, you need to start with an idea and merely hint at a story that it much longer, not actually tell it. There’s something to the metaphorical approach that works in this market, and taking something like an image is going to propel you further into the reader’s mind, but at quicker pace than if you were building and adding pages upon pages of microtension. It was at this point that Braunbeck suggested using short, choppy sentences to propel actions and emotions along in the piece.

Overall, the workshops were great, the company couldn’t have been better, and I left with an abundance of information and inspiration. There’s really no feeling quite like returning to the desk after spending the weekend with a group of writers and seeing the words just pour out on the page because you’re still on a literary high!