Back from UC-Riverside. What a blast.

So I just got back from being a visiting author at UC-Riverside, which is held at a fantastic resort in Palm Springs.

Tod Goldberg runs this program, and he does a great job with this low-res MFA—supporting his teachers, understanding his students, and being contemporary and current with his approach to fiction. He also made me laugh a lot, the guy is hilarious—I can’t remember having so much fun at an MFA program before. His program is very open to genre fiction, as well as literary fiction, and it was refreshing in so many ways. My lecture was about dark fiction, and how I feel we’re in a bit of a golden age for tragic storytelling. I was very happy to see a lot of nodding heads at my talk, the students well-read, getting all of my references, eager to read more, and apply their own voice to various genres.

I also had a great time hanging with my old friend Stephen Graham Jones. If you aren’t reading him, you are really missing out of one of the most interesting, innovative and powerful voices in fiction today. I’ve known Stephen for about nine years. I’ve taken classes he has taught, he blurbed my first book, I published a story of his in The New Black, as well as his latest collection, After the People Lights Have Gone Off (Dark House Press) which was nominated for both a Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award, and he has written the introduction to my next short story collection, Tribulations, out in 2016. It’s funny to see how much we have in common, from our youth, to our influences, to our processes. Also, I figure if I just sit next to him often enough, I should evolve through osmosis alone.

I also got to see a lot of old friends such as Jason Metz (published a story of his in Exigencies), Xach Fromson, Gina Frangello, and Rob Roberge, which was great, and meet other authors I really enjoy, such as David Ulin and Tara Ison.

If you are looking for a contemporary low-res MFA program that is open-minded, innovative, and a lot of fun, apply—this is a unique place, that is doing amazing work. I hope to return soon.

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It’s Release Day for DISINTEGRATION!

DisintegrationALL

I can’t even believe Disintegration is finally here, six years in the making. I started this in my MFA program back in 2009, writing the first half with my professor Lynn Pruett, who knew nothing about neo-noir. After I gave her copies of work by Will Christopher Baer and Craig Clevenger, she got what I was going for, and was extremely supportive. When I got to Dale Ray Phillips, who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, he said it might not be thesis material, which means—not good enough. I put it aside to work on literary short stories with him, and it was worth the wait. A year and a half later, I had a week between gigs and wrote the second half, 40,000-words in five days, my fingers bruised, my arms aching, practically in tears when I stopped, feeling like I might throw up. That began the year search for a small press, where it was rejected 20, 30, 40 times. Running out of options, I decided to try and get an agent, and over 100 rejections later, Paula Munier at Talctott Notch called me, only 100 pages in, to say she loved it and wanted to sign me. I said finish the book, it’s kind of dark. She did, and she signed me, and we went after the big six and their imprints. So many close calls, coming down to board votes in some cases, and then we got the offer from Random House Alibi. I knew we were taking a chance on this eBook only imprint, but it has been a fantastic experience, my editor there, Dana Isaacson, so supportive, helping to make this book so much better. A team of three copy editors, and four marketing/PR associates, gave me more support than I’ve ever gotten. Now, the day is here.

I hope you enjoy the book, this neo-noir, transgressive thriller that is the first book in the Windy City Dark Mystery Series. It’s kind of Dexter meets Falling Down. The second book, The Breaker, is also set in Chicago, with a different protagonist (out in late 2015, or early 2016). It’s more like what Stephen King did with small town Maine novels than the F. Paul Wilson series, and his Repairman Jack.

ENJOY!

Here are some early reviews:

THIS IS HORROR

THE HORROR BOOKSHELF 5/5

ENTROPY MAGAZINE

CRIME FICTION LOVER 4/5

MATT PUCCI BLOG

SPLATTERHOUSE FIVE 5/5

QUIET FURY BOOKS BLOG 5/5

SJ2B HOUSE OF BOOKS 5/5

PAUL READ OR DEAD

PANTHEON MAGAZINE

HELLNOTES

Here are some excerpts:

ZOUCH

PUNCHNEL’S

ENTROPY

Editing Services

I’ve been working with a number of authors for the past couple of years now. If you need help with a short story or novel, everything from big picture edits (what’s working and what isn’t, why doesn’t this have the impact I want, conflict, plot, setting, etc.) to up close edits (typos, grammar, tense, dialogue, etc.) I’m now taking on new clients. What kind of work am I doing? Here are some details:

1. OVERVIEW: I can read a story or novel, give you general feedback on what’s working and what isn’t, and suggest some markets. $4/page (double-spaced)

2. FULL EDIT: I can read a story or novel, give you feedback on big picture edits (developmental editing) and do a line-by-line edit (copy editing) editing for grammar, typos, tense, etc., and then suggest some markets. $8/page (double-spaced)

My rates are very reasonable, I think. I see other editors charging $100-150+ an hour. If you’re serious about working with me, send me a note to wickerkat@aol.com, and we can talk about a plan that make sense for you. I do not take on all clients or all projects. If you are a part of LitReactor, The Cult, The Velvet, or know me on Facebook and/or Twitter, let me know that, unless it’s obvious, and we talk all the time.

TESTIMONIALS:

“Richard Thomas is a scientist. He will take your work and examine it under his microscope until he’s studied every little detail. He will dissect your manuscript and make it bleed. Affordable and fast paced, I was impressed with the massive amount of care shown on the edits of my book. Not only did he perform a massive copy edit, but he also analyzed each individual chapter and told me what worked—and more importantly, what didn’t. Richard is exactly what an editor should be.”
—Max B.

“Richard has a keen eye for the little details that make a story work as well as for the bigger picture that brings together the plot. His professional demeanor and kind manner make working with him a real pleasure. He catches the things that most writers miss—and that’s a real gift.”
Bryan H.

“Richard Thomas is not only a fine editor, but he’s an avid reader. He doesn’t just edit. He invests time in your story, in your characters, and in the fictional world you’ve created. This is what I find to be his greatest strength. His goal is to understand and care about your story as much as you do, and he’ll offer helpful suggestions on how to better reach your intended audience. He doesn’t force you to share his opinion, but I’ve never not heeded his advice.”
—Rebecca J.

“I have contracted Richard to edit several short stories, and have found that his ability as an editor is a direct reflection of his resume as a writer—impressive to say the very least. I have found his editing to be of tremendous value, and would recommend his services to any emerging writer.”
Nicholas M.

“After looking for a decent editor, a writer friend referred me to Richard. I’m so happy that he did. Not only did Richard tear through my manuscript with a fine tooth comb, he also offered suggestions on what was needed to improve my writing. He also provided several markets to submit my polished piece to. Not only is he affordable, he’s a damn good writer. If you’re looking for an editor who won’t hold back and sugar coat your mistakes, Richard is your man.”
—Isaiyan M.

“Richard’s keen eye for detail goes above and beyond fixing punctuation and grammatical errors. He gets to know the work and has an innate feel for the flow, timing, and flavor of the book he is working on. He identifies small elements in a work that the writer may not even notice and makes spot on suggestions for ways to expand those elements in a way that adds dimension and color to a story. The best thing I can say about his editing is that my work has focus-grouped dramatically better after he has worked on it than before (and his edits happened AFTER the publisher’s editor had worked on it). At this point I would never send work out without having Richard edit it first.
—Brian C. 

“Go ahead and write the best damn story you can. Edit tirelessly for weeks on end. Have your writer friends critique it and their writer friends, too. Then go back and write that perfect final draft. But I bet that even after all that, give it to Richard Thomas and he’ll still find redundancies, misplaced modifiers, dangling participles, plot holes—you name it. What I’m saying is if you want to sharpen that latest draft, Richard is your man.”
Ryan S.

“Richard has a gift for taking something good and making it better. He’ll find the little things that don’t catch your eye because you’re looking for big problems and expose their unfinished edges, guiding you in how to polish each element. Send him your finished work and he’ll show you how it’s actually two or three drafts away from being really done. People call him a story surgeon, but he’s more like a gem-cutter. Your story may be pretty, but he’ll show you some new angles, cut a new edge, shine it up and set it nicely.”
—Sarah R.

“The expertise and insight Richard brings as an editor is formidable. He helped me take three struggling stories from merely adequate to excellent. His feedback is spot-on. If you want to become a better writer, take a story through several rounds of revision with Richard. You won’t be disappointed with the results.”
—Nathan B.

“Let’s face it, editing is a daunting task. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Richard in the context of a class he taught at LitReactor.com and having him edit my work. He’s given me a structure and process to approach my manuscripts, hacking off hunks in some places, neatly trimming in others. He’s returned my work with meticulous notes, encouragement, and considerations to get to the true heart of my story, coaxing out every ounce of soul. If you’re holding on to a good story and feel the need for professional help to make it great, look no further.”
—Jason M.

“I took an online class with Richard Thomas in hopes of preparing a story to submit for publication. I was looking for fine-tooth comb edit on the sentence level. Richard offered that and more. He took an interest  in my characters and suggested ways to flesh them out. He showed me the weak spots, and pointed out the grand spots. Richard is at once honest and motivational, real and encouraging. He is a joy to work with. Best of all, my writing is better for the experience. I hope to work with him in days to come.”
—Lisa M.

“Having read Richard’s work, it was a no-brainer to send my piece over to him when the opportunity came up. My story needed help, and Richard showed me what worked and more importantly, what didn’t. But he didn’t stop there. He gave me suggestions on how to fix the issues and what might work, as well as let me know what I did well. Essentially, he helped give me the tools to take it to the next level. If you’re serious about taking your writing to the next level, definitely see Richard.”
—Matt G.

“After achieving what I thought was a solid draft of a story, and after having it work-shopped by several people, I still felt something was missing. Richard Thomas not only unearthed those little morsels that I’d stepped over repeatedly, but his edits also shed a light on certain weaknesses which allowed me to trim the fat and tighten up my tale—to turn it into something I’m now extra proud to send out to the world. I can’t recommend enough his seasoned and discerning eye.”
—Dino P.

“Submitting work to Richard is submitting to the story. That’s his primary concern, and it should be yours too. He will identify its strengths and weaknesses, what’s working and what isn’t, and he will guide you in the right direction by way of a clear and thorough explanation. I will definitely be asking for Richard’s help again.”
—Matt P.

“Richard does a wonderful job of finding what’s most special in the work and then measures every other element in the story against that high standard. It’s simultaneously humbling and inspiring because he holds you accountable to being consistently as good as you’ve shown you can be. That’s the kind of pushing we could all use as creative people.”
—Terry R.

“If you are looking for an editor, Richard Thomas is the man for the job. I found his detailed insight to be eye opening—not only for the story he critiqued, but also my writing in general. I especially appreciated him taking the additional time to give insight on how to better develop a story by approaching from a different angle, developing an aspect of a character or specific elements of the plot and more. Surpassed my every expectation.”
—Chris I.

“Richard critiques your work with the eye of a reader but the voice of an editor. He’s the kind of person that devours books and when he reads your story he approaches it as a reader would, noting the inconsistencies and flaws in your work without over-analyzing the context of what you’re trying to do because in the end, what we try to do as writers is inconsequential. What matters if how we’re perceived by your average person, by editors, by fans of the written word who won’t necessarily care about metaphors and other literary slight of hand. More importantly, Richard is able to communicate these flaws with the kind of language writers are familiar with, suggesting possible changes without writing the story for you. While he doesn’t critique in the context of what we’re attempting to do in a story, he acknowledges and understands an author’s intentions, and will always give advice with that in mind. As a horror writer, Richard approached my own story in the context of horror and suggested changes as to how I could best edit the story in order to make it a better horror story. And for this, I was very grateful to have his input.”
—Bill J.

“What separates a good fiction editor from a great one? The great ones possess the restraint to edit the language and structure of a story without attempting to augment or water down the truth its writer is trying to present. Richard Thomas exercised this restraint with my work, and I’ve benefited greatly from his fine ear as well as his knowledge of the writing industry.”
—Jon T.

“Richard Thomas is a brilliant editor who is also an amazing writer. Not only will he make your work shine, but he’ll help you grow as a writer. His questions and suggestions are immensely helpful, and the grammatical flourish with which he untangles sentence structure is worthy of a linguistic artist. He points out discrepancies, highlights plot points that could use clarification, and acts as an adviser going to war with you. A literary battle. Thrust into the trenches of story pages, he bayonets problems away one knife thrust at a time, but he does it with a whole lot of elan. ”
—Peter T.

“Richard cares about the stories he edits and cares about making you a better writer. He’ll help you find solutions to your story’s issues and point to where the story’s strengths lie. He is a great editor, coach, and mentor. Bottom line: If you want to be a better writer, work with Richard Thomas.”
—Scott H.

“It’s an honor to be a Richard Thomas client. Richard’s edits and critiques of my work are as eagerly awaited as the responses to my submissions to publishers, if not more so. I tend to make the same grammatical and punctuation errors repeatedly, so a quick review of a prior Richard edit of my work, when I think I’m through with a piece, just makes good sense. Richard’s comments on the stories themselves and my writing style and ability are always delivered quickly. Richard can’t help but bring a spark of his own magic into the work through the power of his critiques. By defining my style and pointing out the best parts of my writing he has also bolstered my confidence. Thank you, Richard.”
—Dona F.

“Richard Thomas is equal parts lit doctor—pointing out the weak lungs, obesity issues, or high cholesterol of your story—and personal story trainer—offering a plan for fixing those problems while providing the motivation you need to get it done. If you consider your body of work as the living, breathing thing it is, one that needs to be nurtured and grown with care, then you’d be making a mistake not soliciting Richard’s help. He knows how to make weak stories good, good stories great, and great stories perfect. He sees exactly what you’re not seeing: the very best version of your story and how to get there. And it’s a wonder he still finds the time to write great stories of his own with the abundant amount of intricate feedback he provides on even the shortest stories.”
—Dan F.

“Editors are gemstones and I wouldn’t dream of sending my work out without a round by a good one. I am a returning client of Richard’s because he has high skills for content and structural editing of fiction, and he is a solid reader and writes fiction. Three stars right there. His insights about characterization, plotting, and identifying the weaknesses/conflicts in a story are better than most other editors I’ve worked with. Even though I am a copy editor and proofreader by trade, I cannot always see the faults in my own creative writing. As a bonus, Richard knows the fiction markets and is willing to share that perspective; that is a plus that I rarely see in other editors. So yep, this guy is a 5-star editor.”
—Paula C.

“Richard provides comprehensive edits while keeping the author’s overall vision of the work in mind. When pointing out problems, he doesn’t degrade or condescend. He strives to help you learn so that you can improve your process going forward and get back to the thrill of writing.”
—David W.

“A story I was very proud of had received numerous high tier rejections and close calls, but was missing the mark somewhere. I believed in the story, but knew I needed some help to get it to where it needed to be. Richard’s expert edits and notes helped me to see the little details and big elements that were holding it back. I’m extremely proud of the story, and overjoyed with the care that Richard showed it in his edits. If you’ve got a story that could use some fine tuning, you can’t go wrong putting it in Richard’s hands.”
—Cory C.

“Richard has a rare talent. I don’t know how he does it, but he finds the ‘true heart’ of the story, points out what works and what doesn’t, and then helps you discover what you can do to make it better. His editing service is very much a short story boot camp. Yeah, you’ll get the kinks out of your current story, but you’ll be a stronger writer in the long run. Bottom line, he’ll invest himself in your story and apply his expertise as if it was his own. I wish I’d found him sooner.”
—Lisa B.

“I approached Richard Thomas to be my editor for  many reasons. I was publishing  my novel on my own, and wanted someone with credentials and respect in the  industry. As a fan of his writing, I knew he had talent. His stories have an  incredible economy of words, with vivid descriptions shaved down to the bone and  a plot that is lean and direct, and I wanted that for my own work. As an editor,  Richard was very accessible. He worked with me on character development and  pointed out things I would never have realized, and listened to special concerns  I had. Before, during, and after the editing process, he engaged in dialogue and  suggestions rather than micromanaging the novel. The result was a great collaboration and a final piece that is uniquely my own, but would have been a  much lesser piece had I not used his services. You won’t find an editor of his  respect and quality at the same price.”
—Mark M.

“Richard Thomas knows his stuff, from big-picture plot and characterization to all of the little grammatical details that can easily get overlooked. In a nutshell, he gets what makes a good story, has a great eye for detail, and isn’t afraid to give you his opinion—all of which makes him a great editor. I will keep using his services as long as he offers them, and I have no reservations whatsoever recommending him to novice and experienced writers alike.”
—Jeremy B.

“Richard’s comments were timely, encouraging, and right on point. If there is something about your story that just doesn’t feel right, Richard will ferret it out and help get you back on track.”
—Rebecca A.

“Grammar and plot issues should be easy work for any editor worth his or her salt. Richard does a wonderful job with those technical details. What truly sets his work apart are questions and ideas that give you an entirely new way to look at your own story. We get so deeply into our work sometimes—having a keen and compassionate new set of eyes is invaluable. Richard’s insights not only make the individual story far better, they also send my mind off in exciting new creative directions. Add that to fast, dependable turnaround and reasonable rates, and I couldn’t be happier!”
—Kari K.

” I asked Richard to take a little sandpaper to my story and work up some grit. He certainly delivered, and my story is all the better for it !”
—Jen J. 

SHORT STORIES I’VE EDITED HAVE BEEN SOLD TO: Juked, PANK, Interzone, Another Chicago Magzine, Daily Science Fiction, Carve, Thuglit, Pseudopod, Shotgun Honey, Weirdbook, Bizarro Central, Spark, Blight Digest, Red Fez, Sheepshead Review, Dark Moon Digest, Deimos, Crime Factory, Bete Noire, Molotov Cocktail, Literati Magazine, and the following anthologies— Exigencies (Dark House Press), Behold: Oddities Curiosities and Undefinable Wonders (Crystal Lake Publishing), Not Your Average Monster (Bloodshot Books), Nightscript, Simple Things (Lycan Valley Press), The Best Asian Short Stories (Kitaab), and American Nightmare (Kraken Press).

NOVELS, COLLECTIONS AND NOVELLAS I’VE EDITED HAVE BEEN SOLD TO: Angry Robot Books, Crystal Lake Publishing, One Eye Press, Post Mortem Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Kraken Press, and Perfect Edge Books.

LISTS, NOMINATIONS AND AWARDS: Projects I’ve edited have won the This is Horror award for Best Anthology and Best Short Story Collection; I’ve received several Bram Stoker Award and Shirley Jackson Award nominations; received Nebula preliminary nominations; been long-listed for The Folio Prize; and been on the Publisher’s Weekly “Best Science Fiction Books of the Summer” list. A student was also the winner of the Writers of the Future contest (3rd Quarter, 2016) AND the Grand Prize, for a story he started, and edited, in one of my classes. Stories written and/or edited in my classes, and privately with me, have received numerous Pushcart Prize nominations.

WRITING PROGRAMS / MFAS: One of my clients got into the Spaulding, Stone Coast, and University of California-Riverside MFA programs based on stories that we worked on together (chose UCR). Another author got into Columbia University, The Writer’s Foundry at St. Joseph’s College and The University of Baltimore (chose Foundry). A third student just got into the Emerson College Master of Fine Arts in Popular Fiction Writing program, with a full ride—the prestigious Emerson Community Scholarship. This student hired me to edit work privately and took several of my classes as well.

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Dueling Columns 3 – MFA Programs: Yes or No, with Caleb J. Ross

TODAY AS PART OF THE EPIC CALEB J. ROSS STRANGER WILL TOUR, CALEB AND I WILL DEBATE MFA PROGRAMS. HE WILL TAKE THE CON AND I WILL TAKE THE PRO. ENJOY. OH, AND PICK UP HIS BOOK, HE’S SO TALENTED. I’M HONORED TO BE ON THE SAME LABEL AS CALEB.

Dueling Columns – To MFA or not to MFA

This is a guest post by CalebJRoss (also known as Caleb Ross, to people who hate Js) as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin and novella, As a Machine and Parts, in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contacthim. To be a groupie and follow this tour,subscribe to the CalebJRossblogRSSfeed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb

AGAINST MFA PROGRAMS – Caleb

In the third installment of Richard Thomas’s Dueling Columns series, he and I stake our positions on the idea of an MFA. At this point in my life, I land in the “not to MFA” group.

First, a bit of context. Richard has an undergrad degree in Advertising and Communications with a minor in Psychology. He is currently pursuing an MFA. I have an undergrad degree in English Lit with a minor in creative writing. I am not currently pursuing an MFA. Why is this important? To show that I am coming at this question of education with a different educational history than Richard. Furthermore, as far as I am aware, Richard’s goal is to teach creative writing at a college level. An MFA is a requirement to do so. I do not want to teach. So I must argue this as though he and I are both looking at the MFA as a way to develop one’s creative writing abilities, not as a way to ensure a career in academia. If you want to be a professor, you can stop reading now; there really is no pro vs con debate.

So, with all of those qualifiers out of the way, let’s get into the meat of the duel.

Cost analysis

At its core, an MFA program is an extension of the traditional 4-year undergrad program, and in being so carries financial and structure burdens similar to that of an undergrad program. What we are looking at then is cost. Basically, the cost of an MFA includes two things: connections and time. You’ll meet many famous writers and you’ll be forced to write. Both of these things are necessary for a serious writer. But, neither of these things is the sole intellectual property of the MFA program. For any serious writer, MFA or no, connections and productivity are things that will come as a result of dedication. Using my experience as an example (a sample size of one, I know, dangerous), within the first two years of post-undergrad life (2005-2007), I completed three novel-length manuscripts (two of which are to be published in 2011), became an editor at Outsider Writers Collective (where I’ve interacted with some of the best independent writers around), contributed book reviews to a variety of online zines, participated in Write Club (which surpassed my undergrad workshops in many ways, but not all ways), and met Richard Thomas (which ultimately led to my book being published by Otherworld Publications). Roxanne Gay, in ablogpostatHTMLGiant about this very topic of MFA, sums up my opinion nicely: “I do believe one should never pay for graduate school but that a graduate education is awesome.”

I feel any higher education in the liberal arts should focus as much on the how tos as the whys. From what I know of MFAs, there is a large why focus, specifically in regards to pedagogy, which is great. A good writer can write. A great writer can think. But again, if you have the passion to be a great writer, you’ll seek out the whys on your own. Does this mean an MFA is essentially a writing desk with a $30,000 gun to your head? Yeah.

Craft analysis

I don’t believe that the MFA program offers anything in terms of learning how to tell a story that an adequate undergrad program can’t offer. Continuing with my personal experience as an example, it may be that my undergrad experience was so great that I gained what I would consider the equivalent of an MFA (in terms of education, not in terms of papered credentials). My professor, Amy Sage Webb, continues to be one of my strongest supporters, and without her I may very well have moved right into an MFA program after undergrad. Though ironically enough Amy pushed me almost daily to pursue graduate school; perhaps in a strange Socratic way. What I learned as an undergrad, when weighing the pros/cons of grad school, is what Lincoln Michel, Master of Fine Arts and co-editor of Gigantic Magazine says in his reaction piece to ElifBatumansantiMFAreviewbookreview: “Studyingandcritiquinganartformisntthesameaspracticingit.” MFA programs train students to study and critique writing. The craft itself can be learned elsewhere. Sure, there’s a thesis/novel to be written during a two-year program, but any writer worth his own cramped knuckles will produce a manuscript in two years.

I have to end by admitting that this opinion isn’t one I intend to keep, unchanged, for the rest of my life. I may want to teach one day. In fact, I’d be surprised if I didn’t attempt to teach someday. At that time, I’ll be in line for my MFA. But professorial aspirations aside, MFA’s just aren’t worth the time and financial investment.

Takeaways:

  • An MFA may guide a student more directly than self-navigation through the vast land of education, but at a great financial cost
  • An MFA is necessary for teaching at a college. I think this is the case all around, but correct me if I am wrong.
  • Given the right undergrad program, one can learn just as much in terms of how tos and whys without pursuing an MFA.
  • If you want to be a great writer you will be a great writer; no MFA necessary
  • The internet makes it almost impossible not to network with established writers; no MFA program necessary.

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FOR MFA PROGRAMS – Richard

As Caleb mentioned in his column, if you want to teach at the university level, then you must get an MFA. And at many fine universities, you may need a PhD these days as well. In addition to that, most schools want you to have at least one published novel or short story collection (the bigger and better the press, the greater the recognition) as well as many stories published in the best journals and magazines in the country, and some teaching experience as well. But we’re not talking about that today, we’re talking about everything else that comes with your MFA experience and why you should spend the time, money, and effort to get an MFA. Here’s what I think about it all.

Forced Reading and Analysis

I know it seems like a horrible thing to say, but if you have deadlines, and if you’re spending money on something, you will most likely pay attention and work hard at it. If you have to turn in a short story, an annotation (based on a novel or collection that you had to read first, of course) by the end of each month, you are going to do it. I certainly do write stories on my own, and without deadlines, but I can honestly say that having a word count, a book (or two) to read each month, it kept me producing. My low-res MFA program down at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky (where I’m just finishing up my studies) really pushed me—to write, to read and to analyze. I doubt I would have done this on my own. Maybe I would have, but the forced requirements left me no room to play around. And since I did pay for my MFA, no grants, scholarships or other aid, I took it seriously.

Working Outside of Your Comfort Zone

I can honestly say that there are many authors that I definitely would not have read if it wasn’t for my MFA program. While we did have the ability to pick our books to read over the course of each semester (7-11 titles), some of what my professors asked me to read were not up for discussion: the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, The New Yorker, and the Best American Short Stories anthology series. I read a wide range of authors that really helped me to see what the literary landscape is like today, as well as in the past hundred years or so. For our fiction genre lectures as well, we read Poe, Murakami, McCarthy, and many other authors that I either didn’t know very well, had read some of their work, or were totally new to me. Since my undergraduate studies at Bradley University were in Advertising/Communication, I was lacking in my literary studies. Between the work I found on my own (Holly Goddard Jones, Mary Gaitskill, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Rash), the work that was assigned, and the authors that I already loved, and decided to re-read or dig into deeper, the scope of my reading and analysis was much wider than I would have assigned to myself on the outside, in the real world. That’s something to consider.

Mentors, Professors and Peers

I studied under Lynn Pruett my first semester and she really helped me to hone in on the authors I already enjoyed and to write the first half of my second neo-noir novel (Disintegration) which I’m shopping now. But it was studying under Dale Ray Phillips (nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) that I really pushed myself. Or maybe I should say—was pushed. DRP got me away from the crutches and tricks that I used in my genre writing, where I often leaned heavily on sex and violence and the occasional twist ending, exploring fantasy, horror, crime, neo-noir, you name it. He wanted straight literary stories where nobody died at the end. What was his big line to me? Leave the slow reveal to the strippers. It was hard—really hard. I had to focus on the story, and the classic structure of a story, find my narrative hook, explore the conflicts in the lives of my characters, and bring it to a satisfying end. Above and beyond these two professors, I talked to many talented authors, teachers, and guest authors, who really enlightened me on so many subjects, as well as a gifted group of fellow fiction writers, poets, and essayists.

Guest Authors

I was talking to some author friends at a recent residency I was awarded (Writers in the Heartland) and I mentioned to the poet that I was constantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the guest poets at MSU. The same goes for a lot of the non-fiction authors. I was always surprised at how talented all of the guests were, from fiction writer Richard Bausch making me cry with his emotional truths, and essayist Heather Sellers making me laugh with her stories of facial blindness, to poets Linda Bierds and Alice Friman showing me the power of poetry, and journalist Nick Reding exploring the haunting world of crystal meth and addiction. The readings blew me away and the craft lectures were always enlightening and educational.

Conclusion

Do you need an MFA to write? No, you do not. You are certainly, if you are driven enough, capable of reading extensively, publishing widely, and studying on your own. But if you want to work with published authors in an environment with your peers, and get that extra push you may need to read, write and publish, then an MFA is a great place to study and create. I really enjoyed my time at MSU, and this program is still a relatively unknown and emerging program. If you can get into a top program, and get some financial aid, and especially if you are still unencumbered by a wife or husband and a household full of children, then I can’t think of a better way to massage your voice and grow as an author.

 

Thanks, Caleb for being a guest today. Pick up ^ this book today, people.

Annotation on Will Christopher Baer’s Phineas Poe Trilogy – KMJ, PD and HHA

This was something I did for my MFA at Murray State. My professor, Lynn Pruitt, really liked it, and in fact, I’m bringing down a copy of KMJ for her, she was so intrigued. I don’t know if any of you die-hard WCB fans will get anything MORE out of this, you’ve probably all come to similar conclusions, BUT…maybe it will be an interesting read anyway, and something to do until we get Godspeed. I hope you all enjoy it, and let me know your thoughts.

Copy the link to get to the .doc:

http://drop.io/m7dlam4#

Peace,
Richard

OR READ IT HERE (pardon the formatting):

“Use of Unreliable Narrator in the Phineas
Poe Trilogy by Will Christopher Baer”
by Richard Thomas

Perhaps one of the strongest voices currently out there in the world of neo-noir, Will Christopher Baer weaves a disorienting, compelling, and layered story through the three books in his Phineas Poe trilogy: Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and Hell’s Half Acre. Poe is an unreliable narrator from the moment we start Kiss Me, Judas. Baer uses many different devices, themes, and techniques to show us the shadow worlds that Poe inhabits, but the main executions involve Poe’s love/hate relationship with Jude, his questionable sanity based on events in his past, the extensive use of drugs and alcohol, the game of tongues in Penny Dreadful, and the use of a script and snuff film in Hell’s Half Acre.

The novel opens with a rich depiction of a blurry scene, a vision, uncertain but vivid nonetheless. We will later realize exactly what has happened here, which only adds to the altered perception and richness:

I must be dead for there is nothing but blue snow and the furious silence of a gunshot. Two birds crash blindly against the glass surface of a lake. I’m cold, religiously cold. The birds burst from the water, their wings like silver. One has a fish twisting in its grip. The other dives in again and now I hold my breath. Now the snow has stopped and the sky is endless and white and I’m so cold I must have left my body.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.1

At this point in the story we don’t know anything. But later, we will realize that we have just witnessed the extraction of one of Poe’s kidneys, by the organ thief, Jude, his soon to be nemesis and lover. The silver birds are the tools she uses to slice him open and extract the kidney, and the cold is a bathtub of ice that he is sitting in, close to death.

Quickly we see how he wavers back and forth between his love and lust for Jude and his hatred for her, his fear of her, this assassin in a lace bra and black boots. Witness this conversation between Rose White and Phineas shortly after he has realized what has happened, and has vowed to track Jude down:

I’m weak. I need to be strong when I see Jude.

Let me help you.

No. I need to do this alone.

What are you going to do?

I’m going to take her to a hotel room.

I don’t want to know. I really don’t.

I’m going to drug her and fuck her senseless.

Phineas. That’s enough.

Then I’m going to kill her.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.40-41

We are introduced early to the questionable morality of Poe, and see how he is both attracted to Jude, and at the same time, focused on erasing her.

One of the most succinct and extensive examples of this complicated relationship comes late in the trilogy, in a section about halfway through Hell’s Half Acre, the third book, where Poe contemplates his feelings for Jude, and the validity of pursuing her:

I used to watch her sometimes, when she was painting her toenails or brushing her teeth or yawning on the floor in her underwear, flicking through a glossy woman’s magazine. I loved her. I didn’t love her. Once, I watched her take the television apart in the middle of the night because she was bored. I watched her reduce the television to a scrap heap of apparently ruined fuses and wires. Then I watched her put the television back together and was not surprised when the reception was improved. I thought I loved her, then. I watched her smash the same television to bits two days later because she didn’t like some snotty actress and in that moment, I thought I loved her. But there was fear between us, truly. There is always fear but when two artists, two liars, or two killers occupy the same house and sleep in the same bed, rage runs rampant and becomes entangled with mistrust and doubt and alcoholic despair. The love between them isn’t safe in the bones, the marrow.

Jude doesn’t belong to me and never did. I don’t belong to her because our love is unsafe in the marrow.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.186

That says it all. This vivid reflection shows us the reader the constant dilemma that Poe is in, and how deeply he is effected by Jude, how much she effects him. We know what lengths he has gone to in the past to protect her. He questions everything about their relationship, and yet, seems unable to get free.

The second example of utilizing this unreliable voice has to do with Poe’s sanity. From the second page of the first novel, Kiss Me, Judas, we are shown that he has a sordid past, and is unstable in many ways. Here we find Poe and Jude in a hotel bar, before she steals his organ, as Poe tries to adjust to his new life:

Are you a tourist? she says

I’m not even sure what city this is.

Denver.

I’m a salesman.

That’s funny. You look like a cop.

I’ve just been released from a mental hospital.

Perfect, she says.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.2

In fact, Poe IS an ex-cop, and he has been recently released from a mental hospital after the questionable death of his wife, Lucy. There has been talk that she killed herself, and talk that Poe did it. Out of anger, or vengeance, or simply to end her misery, end the cancer, or finish the unsuccessful suicide attempt, we never really know.

His wife was dying of cancer, but there was drama towards the end, there was hope for a child, there were young boys involved, and her death in a row boat was questionable, all of which would later contribute to Poe’s mental instability:

We tried different positions that might improve the sperm’s ascent. I fucked her underwater and upside down. We used leather and dogs and vegetables and ice and cellophane and handcuffs to make it interesting. I fucked her fully clothed in the rain. Her face was ever a grim mask. She couldn’t enjoy it, she said. She had to concentrate. I fucked her until I had nothing left, until my penis shrank at the thought of her. None of it mattered because I was sterile and when the doctors told us so, her face became a death mask.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.38-9

I told her I didn’t care about the boys. Lucy borrowed youth and time and strength from them, things she couldn’t get from me. I told her I had problems of my own and I wanted her to be happy. I told her she wasn’t dead; the doctors were wrong and she had years to live. I told her I loved her and I didn’t smile, because I wanted her to believe me.

The boy in the bedroom had asthma and later I would sit in the dark and listen to his terrible wheezing on my headphones.
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.71

The guilt for not being able to give her child, a lasting image of herself, after she died, it would weigh heavily on him. The boys, as much as he tried to convince himself it was okay, upset him deeply.

Throughout the trilogy, Poe uses a wide variety of drugs, sometimes of his own free will, but other times, he is not told the truth or the full details about what is in a drink or syringe. While not an exhaustive list, he did at various time ingest beer, vodka, gin, whisky, tequila, champagne, absinthe, marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, morphine, and ecstasy. Poe readily admits he has issues with drugs and control. Often he has a festive attitude, simply looking to use drugs in a social environment, like the drinking of the Pale, in Penny Dreadful, an important component in the game of tongues. Other times, for example, when he takes a shot to alleviate the pain after having his kidney cut out, it is to help him cope, to numb the pain, and function:

[With Crumb, an ally, pornography shop owner, as well as amateur doctor.]

What kind of shot was that? I speak slowly. The words pass my lips dense and textured as meat.

A mild speedball. Morphine for the pain. A touch of methamphetamine to give you energy
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.27

[On a bus with Eve/Goo.]
I bounce around in my seat, manic and juiced. My skin doesn’t feel right. It feels rubbery and stretched, as if two people are sharing it. Soon it will come apart. I’m stupidly high, of course. Jude could have slipped me something. Or Pooh might have lied. Perhaps those little blue pills were not muscle relaxers at all…
— Kiss Me, Judas, p.58

[Trying the Pale with Griffin/Major Tom.]
I sipped at the Pale and it shivered down my throat like mercury, cold and thickly sweet.

What is this? I said.

Wormwood and licorice, said Griffin. With a drop of cyanide. Don’t ask.

Absinthe? I said. You are full of shit.

Oh, I stink of it.
— Penny Dreadful, p.72

[Later, with Griffin/Major Tom]
You want to tell me what’s in that Pale beverage, now?

Griffin shrugged. It’s mostly herbs, vitamins: ginseng and ginkgo, various algaes and concentrated wheat grass. And the wormwood, of course. It’s really pretty fucking good for you.

It’s a fucking smart drink? That’s what you’re saying?

I said mostly herbs. There’s also a mild dose of Ecstasy and a touch of synthetic heroin.

That sounds…great…
— Penny Dreadful, p.126-7

Whatever his reason for choosing to partake in the various pharmaceuticals, the outcome is a distorted reality, and a vision of surroundings and events that we the reader can’t take at face value. It also allows us some of the most vivid, surreal, and revealing passages in the trilogy.

The game of tongues is a dominant aspect of Penny Dreadful. This real world role playing game has a caste system filled with Freds, Tremblers, Mariners, Exquisitors, Redeemers, Breathers and the Gloves, the masters of the game. For some of the characters, we only start out knowing their real name – Poe, Detective Moon, Griffin. For others, we only know their name while gaming, such as Mingus, Chrome, and Theseus the Glove. For a select few, to further distort our perception, we know both, as with Eve/Goo. In time, Poe becomes Ray Fine, Griffin is Major Tom , Detective Moon is revealed to be the elusive and destructive Jimmy Sky, and Detective Lot McDaniel, Moon’s partner in the real world, is the master of the game of tongues, Theseus the Glove. These plot twists help to add a depth to the novel, and a blurring between reality and what is seen when in the game:

[Jimmy Sky, the alter ego of Detective Moon is thinking to himself, talking about his life.]
Then he got sucked into this game, this game of tongues. Which was interesting for awhile. A nice, harmless fantasy ripe with vampires and magic spells, with medieval weirdness and good drugs and a fair amount of nudity. The drugs were a concern, though. Moon had got himself hooked on this sweet narcotic potion called the Pale. Or Jimmy did, as Jimmy Sky was his name within the game. Jimmy was a rare self-aware Fred, who was angling to hook himself up as Redeemer.
— Penny Dreadful, p.118

We are constantly unsure of what is real, and what is part of the game. And when Chrome crosses the line and actually starts taking tongues, and killing cops, not pretending with blood packs and illusion, the story takes a dark turn.

The final aspect of deception comes in the form of a snuff film, kidnapping, and script that fills the second half of Hell’s Half Acre, the third book in the trilogy. Jude and Poe have found each other after a several year separation, and things are complicated, to say the least. When they get lured into a snuff film, we the audience don’t know what is for the camera, and what is for real. Is that blood on the kitchen floor or is it syrup? We are as much behind the camera as we are in front of it, and that leads to further confusion, including the format, in the novel, as an actual movie script:

Fade in.

Exterior, house of Miller. Day.

Wide angle of yard. Long shadows stretch across a gravel driveway. Two white men, fat and thin, struggle under the weight of a large, black metal case.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.211

Poe turns his head to the right and looks directly at the camera. Now he glances back at Jeremy.

Poe- If you call me brother again I will eat your fucking heart.
Huck- Oh man, this is gonna be fun.

Poe approaches the camera.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.213

Poe and Molly exchange glances.

Jude- Come on. You can’t tell me that’s not funny.
Molly- I hated that movie.
Jude- Don’t even think of fucking with me.
Molly- Yeah, well. I just kept wishing the English guy would die, already.
Poe- Where is the boy, Jude?
Jude- I can’t tell you.

Jude begins to laugh. Molly chews a thumbnail, worried. As Poe exits the room, Miller opens his eyes and draws a thumb across his throat.
— Hell’s Half Acre, p.217

It is extremely effective in recreating the feeling of disorientation, and the paranoia that goes with not knowing what is going on, what is part of the script, and what is the real world, what is going on behind the scenes, and what is for the camera.

In conclusion, we see that Baer runs a thread through all three books, tying Poe and Jude together, while pitting them against each other, to see what will survive. Will they kill each other, or run off into the sunset together? At the end of each book, we have been given a certain amount of information, and that information is twisted, confirmed, destroyed, and altered as each new part of the trilogy resumes, and then finishes. But by the end of the three books there is indeed a clarity, and a sentiment of everything aligning, and ending up at the only conclusion possible. Baer takes us for a wild ride, keeping us constantly on our toes, eager to turn the page and see what happens next. By utilizing such a flawed and unreliable narrator, and by distorting the vision and emotion of Phineas Poe to such a degree, we the audience are allowed to share that imagery, and the gamut of human emotions