Tori! I’m so excited to chat. I know you, but for everyone who doesn’t, tell us who you are and what you have going on.
My name is Victoria-Lynn Bell, and I’m the current Editor-in-Chief of The Helix magazine. The Helix is a completely undergraduate-run literary and art magazine on the Central Connecticut State University campus. Since its first publication in 1977, The Helix has published one magazine every academic semester. We accept literature and art from all over the globe; our latest edition features writing from our own students here at CCSU as well as pieces from India, Turkey, and New Zealand!
That is an impressively far reach. Congratulations on being able to work with such a diverse population of writers. What’s the editorial process like on your side of the table? What’s one thing that makes a submission jump out at you?
Finding quality submissions is the best part of this job. Our team is not looking for anything in a specific style or genre. What really draws us in is a strong lead to a piece or a poem and attention to detail and craft. We look for pieces that we haven’t seen before, something unique and executed well. When an author marries originality and quality, you know you’ve found a true gem.
And when you find that gem I bet it’s amazing. On the flipside, is there anything that is an immediate disqualifier?
Not reading through the submission guidelines. This is something that has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the artwork, but unfortunately causes some of our submissions to go unopened. If we receive multiple pieces in one document or open a poem that’s formatted in papyrus font for example, we reject the submission and encourage the submitter to try again when they’ve adjusted their piece. Reading through submission guidelines shows us that the artist or author is serious about their work appearing in our magazine.
Which they should be. In your time at Helix, what has been something that you’ve learned that you wish you had known when you started?
Something I didn’t expect was how long it would take up to go through our submission queue. I’ve heard horror stories about publishing companies with tangible slush piles—mountains of submissions that teeter by intern desks and constantly shift like a mud slide—and working at a literary mag is a micro version of that. Our Submittable portal opened about a year ago, and it was more successful than we had anticipated. In an effort to make sure authors didn’t have to wait more than eight months to hear back about their submission, we had to read through a lot of pieces each week.
Was there anything that was sort of eye-opening? Seeing things from the editor’s chair versus behind the writer’s screen?
As a writer, I’m constantly struggling to find ways to improve my pieces. It hard to see the strengths of your own writing when you scrutinize it so closely. During an initial read of a piece I’m reviewing for the magazine however, I find that I fall into a natural balance of enjoying the piece and analyzing whether it will work for The Helix. Seeing what works and what doesn’t work in other’s writing has helped me make decisions with my own craft.
So what would be the most challenging part of the job?
Being Editor-in-Chief is like being a spokesperson, a ringmaster, and an editor all in one. Juggling tasks is the most challenging part of the job. You have to be great at communication and knowledgeable about running a team of editors while communicating with authors and artists. In the weeks leading up to publication, I can be emailing our faculty advisor, meeting with the graphic designer, and editing pieces in the same day.
An impressive feat. Kudos. Taking a step away from the editor’s role, are you working on any projects in your downtime?
When am I not working on a project is a better question! But in all seriousness, I have a few things in the works, including a novel and a collection of poetry and nonfiction essays.
So, I have a very important question. What’s your weapon of choice in the zombie apocalypse?
What am awesome question! My weapon of choice would be a bow and arrows. In a fight-or-flight situation I tend to always flee if I can. A bow and arrows would mean I could protect myself from a distance while still looking completely bad ass. Think Robin Hood meets Daryl from The Walking Dead.
Okay, so before you go, rapid fire time. Answer without thinking. Ready? Set. Go!
Yeah, that is a God-awful word. Thanks for dropping in and shedding some light on the process of being an editor-in-chief. Congratulations with the success you’ve had with Helix and I can’t wait to read more of your work. Where can people get in touch with you if they want to find out more?
I have an Instagram @indexblog and blog tinybitofeverything.net and can be reached through my email firstname.lastname@example.org
Today I got the chance to sit down with dark fiction writer B.L. Daniels and ask him some questions about his craft, his work, and the darker sides of our psyches. Safe to say that I learned a few things this time around. And enjoyed it to. Imagine that! Knowledge is power or so they say. Anyway. . . There’s something behind you. . .
So, welcome, thanks for stopping by the virtual hang space. Can you give us a bit of background on you, your work, and the genres you write in?
I’ve been described as a horror, bizarre, and weird fiction author. I like to think my work straddles the line between scary and ridiculous, because while I enjoy traditional horror, I love throwing elements of dark humor and absurdist nonsense into my stories. I’ve been published in a number of anthologies and literary magazines, and my first book DETROIT 2020 that I co-authored, was described in a review as “if Robocop and The Toxic Avenger had a weird baby.”
I don’t want to think about what kind of baby that would be. But I read DETROIT and can safely agree that it was awesome. Regarding your love for horror and bizarre fiction, what got you hooked on this genre?
I’ve always been intrigued by weird art. I used to work in a video store (yes, I’m old) and devoured everything I discovered in the “Cult Cinema” section. Movies like The Toxic Avenger, Dead End Drive-In, and Street Trash were a revelation after growing up on mainstream horror movies. It made me curious whether similar stuff existed in books. I uncovered writers like John Skipp, Kathe Koja, and Jack Ketchum, who were on the fringes of extreme horror and the “splatterpunk” sub-genres. Them, along with the more literary weirdos of the 1920’s like H.P. Lovecraft and Algernon Blackwood, laid the foundation for a lot of my writing. If I feel confused, uncomfortable, or grossed out when I read something, there’s a good chance I’ll enjoy it. In my mind, that meant the story was having a direct effect on me and doing its job.
That’s pretty good criteria to judge stories on. So if people wanted to jump into this sub-genre where would be a good place for them to start?
If you want to jump right into the deep end of the pool, I would go with Thomas Ligotti and D. Harlan Wilson. Ligotti’s Tales of A Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe is an absolute masterwork of horror blended with dark humor and precise weirdness. He writes beautiful, complex prose that demands being re-read as you navigate his stories. D. Harlan Wilson’s They Had Goat Heads was my first foray into modern bizarro literature. It’s also still my favorite. The guy has a way with words and a clever, gruesome sense of humor. What I love about Wilson and Ligotti is both are completely uncompromising in their work.
If you’re looking to ease yourself into things more slowly I’d recommend any of the Bizarro Starter Kit book series by Eraserhead Press, and of course classic weird stories like At The Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft.
Transitioning the conversation into your own work, can you give us a brief overview of your writing process?
I tend to write slowly. Most of my work revolves around themes of modern suburban existence, and I try to conceive monstrous and grotesque ideas from the general banal routines many of us go through in our daily lives. I keep a notebook with me and I’m always writing down ideas. I’ll jot something down, and then re-visit it a few weeks later. If I think it isn’t totally terrible (most are) then I’ll try to expand on it and see where a story could go. From there I draft it, sit on that for a bit, and then do a second draft that I show to a limited audience to get their impressions. After that, it’s all spit-shine and polish. I’m very fortunate to have friends, family, and an excellent writer’s group that are supportive and honest with me. Not every writer has that.
It's a solitary yet group endeavor. Those who critique your work probably point out certain things, but are there any particular clichés in the horror genre that drive you mad? The safe ones. Stuff like the “fake-out happy ending” where the monster comes back to life and jumps through the window. It drives me nuts.
I want stories that commit.
Horror fans are generally pretty open minded. They will let you re-tread ideas and tropes as long as you either put a twist on them or execute them well. We live in a time where we’re drowning in almost unlimited entertainment choices. Unfortunately that means there’s a lot of mediocre stuff that is designed just to appeal to a mass audience and turn a profit. I’ll never fault anyone for creating art, because self-expression is important, but I feel like a creative work has to evoke emotion to be truly effective. Whether I love or hate something, I want it to have an impact on me. The worst art is the kind that is easily forgettable.
I agree with the safe ones. Things that don’t take a risk. So, in the topic of being unforgettable, what’s something that grosses you out in real life that you’d love to turn into a weird fiction tales?
Becoming mentally or physically debilitated scares the hell out of me. Body horror like Cronenburg’s The Fly or Burroughs’ Naked Lunch are the things that fuel my nightmares. I am always looking for ways to explore those fears in my writing, to wrestle with my own phobias about my body and brain turning on themselves.
When you get a story completed do you have a tradition? How do you celebrate the project being done?
I order a pizza, pick out a new beer to try, or both.
Jumping back to DETROIT, was it always planned to be a novella? How do you determine how long a piece should be?
DETROIT 2020 was a lot more free form than any of my other work, because I was creating it with another author. It was a great challenge and really exciting. Fun fact: originally it was a post-apocalyptic vampire novel similar to Blade or I Am Legend. It morphed over time into something more inspired by Escape from New York, Robocop, and crazy SyFy joints like Sharknado. Both Jeff (Conolly) and I are firm believers that “the story should be as long as it needs to be” and it became a novella after a lot of fat got trimmed off to keep the pacing quick.
Makes sense. Do you have any projects currently in the works?
I have a few irons in the fire. I’m currently working on a weird horror novel with historical fiction elements. It takes place in a medieval setting. I also have some short story ideas, and hopefully the sequel to DETROIT 2020 at some point, once Jeff and I find some free time between our other obligations.
Alright, at this point we’re going to wrap up, but before we do let’s jump into the rapid fire part of this shindig. Fire ‘em off. First thing that comes to mind.
Fantastic! Thanks for dropping by, and where can people get in touch with you or find out more about your work?
You can check out my website “Suburban Syntax” at https://bldaniels.wordpress.com for book reviews, writing tips, and weird literature discussion. I’m also on Instagram @bldauthor, and I do a quarterly newsletter with all sorts of random book & horror stuff that you can sign up for here.
I read for escapism. I also play video games, board games, and watch movies for the same thing but seeing as I’m a writer and this is a writing site. . . .
A few close people who are involved in mental health work or studying psychology tell me it’s probably not the best thing, and then I smile, nod, say probably not, and go right back to doing it. Escapism is defined as: the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy. Two points I want to make up front – first, I’d like to remove the word unpleasant from that definition. Life is good. There are bad days and there are good days. Great times and awful times. But overall I am fortunate enough to say that life is good. That doesn’t mean I don’t need a break every once and awhile.
The second thing is how I personally measure the escapism effectiveness of a book. It’s not by how engrossed or obsessed I am while reading it; it’s how difficult it is to let the world go once I’m done and the journey is over (there are television series I have procrastinated finishing because I can’t bear to say goodbye to them, but that’s for another therapist session). If my brain continually returns to the novel and the people and places that exist within its pages days, weeks, or even months in rare occasions, then it aces the Escapism Effectiveness test.
So, the spectrum. Keep in mind that this isn’t a whole look at the quality of a book or short story that I’ve read. It is only one factor adding to how I felt about a piece. A novel could be on the bottom end of escapism spectrum but still be an amazing book that I thoroughly enjoyed.
2. Bare-minimum escapism achieved. No afterthought once the piece was finished.
3. The world was absorbent. The few hours after finishing it, I still thought about a character or two, a particular setting, or something that happened.
5. Following the final page turn comes a momentary reflection. The empty wall stare while everything falls into place and your brain continues to process. Characters exist for a few days after and, if it’s a standalone piece, there exists a desire to return despite not being able to.
7. Questions linger. For days, weeks, or even longer. The world punctured your skull and seeped into the crevices deep inside your brain. The desire to know more, become more embedded in the story burns. Character’s still exist long after the book is finished. The final setting is engraved in your psyche and you wish more than anything you were still there for just a little longer. You miss your friends. Escapism achieved.
It’s been several days, and I still feel the mystery behind famed director Stanislas Cordova—who he is, the truth behind his films, and what was the real cause behind the death of his daughter Ashley.
These are fictional characters that exist inside the world of Night Film, a novel by Marisha Pessl. Escapism achieved. I was recommended the book almost a year ago. Actually, it might be a little over a year at his point. And I finally picked it up and read it. The recommendation was well justified.
Night Film follows Scott McGrath, a disgraced reporter who, after learning of Ashley Cordova’s death, is drawn back into the world of her father. A mysterious director whose films have a cult following that would make Tyler Durden envious. Using mock webpages and news articles strategically inserted into parts of the book, Pessl brings each reader that much further into the investigation, and that much further into the Cordova obsession. God I wish I was still with McGrath. Existing in that world with those characters and the mystery they are attempting to solve.
Night Film, congratulations. You’re a 7 on the Escapism Spectrum. Thank you for one hell of a ride.
This week I got a chance to hang out with Mr. Thomas Welsh, the mastermind behind Anna Undreaming, a dark urban fantasy thrill ride that will leave you flipping pages until there are no more left to turn. We chat about all kinds of things, but to find out what you'll have to keep reading . . . .
Hey Thomas, thanks for swinging in and chatting and a big congratulations on the book being published! For those who aren’t familiar with you or your work, can you give us a quick background?
I’m Thomas Welsh, but “Tom” to you seeing as we’re friends. I write short science fiction stories about awful things happening to normal people, and dark fantasy where women save themselves. I’ve done some background and dialogue writing for games too. I’m best known for “The Metiks Fade” trilogy, and book one “Anna Undreaming”, which just came out. It’s about a young woman living in the city who learns about the secret world of the Aesthete’s – artists who can paint, dance, sew or sing new realities.
And it’s fantastic so far - I have about forty pages left and am going to devour those once we finish up here. But, with your book freshly in the wild, what has been the most exciting part of the publishing process?
It’s all pretty crazy, but by far the strangest, best experience is hearing people talk about characters or scenes from the book. It still feels like it’s my world, but now I have to share it with all these tourists. I have friends and fans telling me they love this character I’ve created, and it just feels so weird. Weird but very cool.
So if you had to pick someone to play the main character in a film adaptation, who would it be?
That’s very tough, because everyone will have a different idea of what the characters look like and I don’t want to override that with my choice, which would be no more valid! I’d rather hear all the readers’ opinions.
Makes perfect sense. Regarding process, tell us a little about your writing routine. How do you start a project and keep the story going through the more difficult scenes?
I came to realize that the parts of the story I wrote that were very hard to complete were no better or worse than the parts that came easy. We’re very bad judges of the quality of our work when we’re in the middle of writing it. So now, when I’m writing a section of the story that seems bad or awkward, I just keep going because I know it’s probably fine. I say to new authors, when it seems like nothing is working and your story is shit, and you feel certain you should just quit, that’s exactly when you need to keep pushing. Push through and out the other end, as Anna would say.
Anna is set to be part of a trilogy. At what point did you know it was going to be a series? How did you plan out that many books?
I think I knew from the start that there was a lot of story to tell.
Your novel involves other worlds or hazes that weave into our reality – describe yours and the types of things we would find there.
Oh, I definitely shouldn’t have that level of responsibility! I’d love to think I’d create more beauty than horror, but I wouldn’t trust myself. I’d end up creating a world made of pizza and die of heart disease probably.
Well, a world of pizza does sound pretty good though. . . So, assuming the zombie apocalypse happens. . . where would you go and what would your weapon of choice be?
I live in an apartment up high, so I might be able to hold out up there. I’d have a bike. It’s not really a weapon, but I just got into cycling again, and as any zombie survivalist knows, it’s by far your most important tool.
Another tricky part of fantasy is the magic system. How do you go about developing a magic system and making sure continuity isn’t lost throughout the project?
I think about it a lot. It’s very important to me that the rules work within the world I’ve created. I usually sort these things out in my head while staring off into the middle distance, making my friends wonder whether I’ve totally lost my mind.
Okay, game time. If you had to square off against Dragonslayer Ornstein or Knight Artorias, who do you think you could take down. . . or at least just limp away from?
Maybe I could charm Sif, then Artorias wouldn’t cut me up. I’d have a better chance with an animal than a mad undead knight.
God that storyline still gets me. But, I digress. So, At this stage of your career, what is something that you’ve learned that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
It’s not as hard as it seems to actually write a book, but everything else around publishing is exactly as hard as it seems.
Do you have a tradition for when you finish a project or have a piece accepted for publication? If so, how do you celebrate?
That’s a good idea! I haven’t finished enough to develop a routine yet. Have a wee whisky maybe?
Any projects currently in the works?
Too many! I’m working on Metiks Fade Book 2 (which is in edits) and I’m writing some background material for a cyberpunk game. I’m also working on this grimdark fantasy called “Hope is Coming to Eat Your Heart”. It’s about an immortal knight coming back from the dead after a thousand years to get revenge on her brothers for stabbing her through the heart.
All of that sounds amazing. Okay, so rapid fire time. Try to answer these without thinking. First thing that comes to mind.
Oh Amelia. . . Such a good game. Thanks so much for taking the time to chill and letting us into your writing world. Where can everyone get in touch with you if they would like to learn more about the man behind the masterpiece?
Anna Undreaming on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Anna-Undreaming-Thomas-Welsh/dp/1945654082
My webpage: http://calmdowntom.com/