Monday, October 19, 2009

Echoes: Part 1

I’ve been seeing a lot of Pennsylvania lately.

Last Monday I drove two hours east through predawn darkness, traveling mostly on two-lane highways that finally led to the Kiski School’s 350-acre campus in the hills above the town of Saltsburg.

I was there to present Visions and Soundscapes, a multimedia reading designed to share highlights form Visions, Veins, and Veins: the Soundtrack – all from Fantasist Enterprises. The venue for the event was the Rogers Theatre, a nicely equipped space, perfect for a reading featuring recorded sound and projected images.

The screen and projector were in place when I arrived, all I needed was to hook up my laptop, adjust the image, and balance the sound. I also needed to set up my Stratocaster and amp (since the presentation includes a live performance of some of the music from the CD).

An hour and a half later, everything was ready to go.

An hour and a half? Actually that’s not bad for setting up and making sure all the sound and video cues work. If there’s one thing I learned about taking a multimedia presentation on the road, it’s that the setup always takes longer than you think. That morning at Kiski, I had actually hoped I might get a chance to step outside before the reading and watch the sun rise over the mountains. But it wasn’t to be. Within seconds of checking the last cue, people began arriving, and it was time to start the overture.

The readings included three of the darker stories in Visions – “Aberrations,” “Echoes,” and “Step on a Crack” – selections that, while not providing a representative cross-section of the book's contents (Visions actually contains far more science fiction and YA fantasy than horror), seemed appropriate for the month of October.

Of the three stories, “Echoes” is the oldest , and as a result it has the most interesting history – highlights of which I’d like to share with you during this week’s installments of Teaching Visions.

Let's begin with some background.

My first office was in my family’s printing business, a long narrow shop with wood floors and a high tin ceiling. The office was in the pressroom. No partitions. Just a desk sitting in the shadow of the printing press. The shop opened at eight, but the sleepy town didn’t get moving until midmorning, and I could usually plan on getting in two uninterrupted hours of writing if I got to work on time, even more if I got there early, which I often did when the writing was going well. In that print shop I learned the importance of developing a writing routine. The fact that the office boasted a good size desk, plenty of paper, ample filing space, and an IBM Correcting Selectric II (this was the late 1970s) didn’t hurt, either. Best of all, since I had yet to sell a single word of fiction, the steady (albeit low paying) work as a print-room manager paid the bills while I learned to write salable fiction.

At first the stories came back, some with form rejections, others with personal notes. I taped all of these to the wall beside the typewriter. They were signs of progress, things to point to when people asked what I was doing in the morning when the press was silent.

The personal notes told me to keep at it, and I did, falling into a steady pace that finally paid off with a sale to Elinor Mavor at Amazing Stories (who was then publishing fantasy and horror as well as science fiction). Elinor also bought my next three stories, the last of which was later optioned for film. The film was never made, but the option check convinced me that writing could actually pay better than printing….

When Amazing rejected my fifth story, I sent it to a magazine that was just then getting underway. The magazine was Twilight Zone, edited by T.E.D. Klein, and the story was “Mrs. Halfbooger’s Basement,” a twisted little horror yarn that Publishers Weekly called “the realization of every child’s fears.” Later that year it sold again to Karl Edward Wagner for Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series XI.

Success led to dedication, and I grew reclusive, forgoing offers to spend time with friends and family in favor of spending long hours at the typewriter. And so it was that, when my grandmother invited me to dinner on a long ago April afternoon, my first inclination was to say, “Thanks, but no.” I had stories to write.

I don’t remember what made me change my mind, but I’m glad I did, for that night over dinner my grandmother planted the seed for a little story that has since taking on a life of its own, having been reprinted and adapted nearly a dozen times over the past quarter century.

Tomorrow, I’ll to tell you what happened at that dinner and how it led to the creation of a successful story.

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