Category Archives: Ace Jordyn

Coffin Hop Press – Home of Weird and Wonderful Fiction

An Interview with publisher and author Axel Howerton.

Axel Howerton has a great sense of story – not only for those he writes, but also for those he publishes. What strikes me about Axel is his sincerity – he isn’t involved in the writing community as a marketing or publishing strategy – for him, it’s a passion for a good story told, to support authors, and to provide readers with access to the unique and weird tales they love. I asked Axel about his experiences as a publisher and what he sees in the future for noir and noir crime genres.

Axel, Coffin Hop Press serves the genre of horror and noir and embraces it in all the sub genres of science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, detective noir, western and literary. You belong to the Crime Writers of Canada and have had several stories published. What did you see or not see happening in the market place that spurred you to start Coffin Hop Press?

When I came back to writing fiction (after a decade of “entertainment journalism” doing reviews, interviews and articles on film and DVD), I started in horror. My first few publications were in horror publications, and I worked briefly as an associate editor for a quarterly called Dark Moon Digest. I found myself in a new community of horror and dark fantasy writers, and found that there were very few promotional avenues for us at the time. I started a blog hop event called Coffin Hop. Back then, all of the blog hops and online events were for romance writers.

By the third year of the event, it had exploded beyond expectations, and many of those involved wanted to put together a book. So, we chose a charity – LitWorld.org – and put together what became the first Coffin Hop Press book, Death by Drive-In. Once I had created that imprint, and had the systems in place, I used it to self-publish a few things, but something about that felt disingenuous, so I sought out a new anthology project. The first idea was for weird westerns, borne of my own love for weird pulp fiction, and the number of writer friends I have who have similar interests. As I became more involved with Crime Writers of Canada, and especially my local writing community in Alberta, I once again felt the need to build something to showcase the underexposed people I had been working with. That led to AB Negative, a collection of Alberta-based crime stories by Alberta-based crime writers. My new goal is to turn Coffin Hop Press into a solid business, to continue making great anthologies, but also branch out and help the world discover great new writers and unusual genres.

Coffin Hop Press has done a lot of interesting things to promote itself, its books and anthologies but also to promote the genre of horror and crime. I sense you’re having too much fun with it all! You have Noir at the Bar events, you participate in Canada Crime Writer and con events, you’ve sponsored several fun and twisted crime anthologies and now you’re launching Noirvellas.

I’ve long been known (in my own little publishing circles, anyways) as the genre guy, and particularly as the “noir” guy. My tastes have always run to the weird and wonderful – 40’s gangsters, 50’s sci-fi, 60’s sleaze, 70’s crime thrillers – and that’s what I want to publish. With novellas being more marketable due to the proliferation of digital readers, and “noir” becoming something of a catchphrase for dark crime thrillers, it seemed like a no-brainer to put the two together. I think the dark subject matter and shorter format go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Noir at the Bar was another way to foster crime writing in my own community. It’s something that started a while ago in St. Louis and spread across North America. I’m proud to say ours was one of the very first in Canada, but more than anything, it’s a way to get people out to hear local crime writers and talk about that kind of fiction.

I’m also working with the Chiaroscuro Reading series, which is a national series sponsored by ChiZine Publications that focuses on the darker side of sci-fi and fantasy, as well as horror. All puddles that I still have my toes dipped in. My latest novel, Furr, and the upcoming Wolf & Devil series are a mix of crime and dark urban fantasy.

For a few years, you held the Coffin Hop which was a week of blog hops and tours held in October. What were your goals with that event? You eventually stopped running it. What were your take-aways from the event and would you recommend it as a marketing strategy for other niche presses?

At the time, an extended multi-author event was a novel approach for horror. We tried very hard to make it something special. We made it a week long, with required cross-pollination between authors. We added special events like poetry slams and art shows, and everyone was required to do giveaways. The problem was, the more popular it became, the more diluted it became, until it was just a flood of people demanding to be involved, yet unwilling to follow those rules, or provide those benefits to readers. The original participants began to get disheartened by the number of people who swooped in and just threw up a paragraph mentioning the hop, then spent a week blasting their own repetitive advertising, instead of working together to make the week a real event for everyone’s readers. Eventually, I got tired of explaining the rules to boorish spammers, and trying to enforce some semblance of fun and frivolity out of the chaos of hundreds of people trying to out scream each other. It had become something akin to a carnival barker convention on crack. At the same time, I wanted to use the imprint that I had created and owned the website for, etc. etc. to work on new book projects, so I suspended the hop and opened the press.

I do think that a similar type of event could work very well, if contained and managed properly. I blame myself for opening the floodgates and not being ready for the onslaught. It was definitely a wake-up call to see the difference between writers and self-advertisers. There’s a troubling ocean of people out there who are flooding the internet with product. They care much less about the art and value of their writing, about telling stories, than they do about getting attention and flogging their wares for a quick buck.

What is local and normal for some is exotic for others. You’ve made it a point to encourage and promote crime and noir stories set locally in the province of Alberta and in Canada. Why this strategy?

AB Negative was a way for me to try and foster the community that I’m in, my hometown crime writing community. There’s a lot of great talent here that is mostly overlooked. There are a lot more avenues for promoting your work in Toronto or Vancouver but, as I found in my dealings with the Crime Writers of Canada, the rest of the country is very much left out in the cold, if you’ll excuse the pun. I wanted to showcase some of the people whose work I admire, and put out the kind of collection I like to read, something eclectic and diverse, with different voices, different styles, and different sub-genres of crime fiction. Nothing annoys me more than using the label “Crime Fiction” and then only applying it to a narrow definition of cozy mystery stories, or quirky local detective yarns. Crime should encapsulate everything from Jim Thompson psycho-sheriff stories to Agatha Christie locked room mysteries; from James Ellroy’s serial-killer lit to Elmore Leonard’s Detroit hipster pulp; from Poe to Patterson and from Marlowe to Fargo.

Looking into your noir crystal ball, what do you see for the future of noir and the noir crime genre? What would you like to happen next?

Neo-noir is big business these days, mostly due to the amount of great television out there, and the ease of access to foreign crime shows and books. The Nordic stuff, especially, has had a great influence on our own culture through shows people are watching on Netflix and the like. There’s also a wider appreciation for the great history of incredible British crime programming. People are watching these dark crime shows and movies, and it’s resonating, much as it did in the 30’s and 40’s when the term “noir” was coined to describe nihilistic American crime flicks.

It’s a much slower, and more difficult process to see those trends in book selling (and especially book writing). It takes an incredibly long time for a book to gain traction, let alone cause a profound influence in our modern culture. Television and movies, current events, these are the things that tend to reflect more quickly in our fiction. The great thing about writing books – and I’m not condoning writing for the purpose of getting a TV deal or anything, I think a book should always be written for the sake of the story itself – but, the great thing about writing books is that you become a one-person production studio on your own film, your own epic TV saga. In the end they are all just mediums to carry our stories. When you produce visual media, you need hundreds, sometimes thousands of collaborators with individual interests and opinions. When YOU write a short story, or a novel, or a “noirvella”… YOU control the mood, the lighting, the sets, the actors.

That being said, the culture right now (as always seems to happen in times of social upheaval and political insecurity) seems to be leaning towards science fiction again. There’s already a number of great films and tv shows coming out, and the revival of old favourites like Blade Runner, Aliens, and Star Wars (albeit with a darker edge), seem to point to a coming resurgence of science fiction in our popular literature. It’s already been happening with runaway hit novels like Ready Player One and The Martian. I think there’s a lot more to come.

That’s partly why we have revived the Sci-Fi Noir anthology we had shelved last year. Keep an eye out for Black Hole Son in 2019. Before that we have an anthology of weird holiday tales, Weird Wonderland, coming this November and featuring writers like Jessica McHugh, Will Viharo, David James Keaton and the amazing Sarah L. Johnson. We have an anthology of “Ladies of Canadian Crime” called The Dame Was Trouble coming out in April next year to celebrate the “Year of Publishing Women”, and a second volume of weird western tales, Taller Tales of the Weirder West, next summer.

Right now, Coffin Hop Press has a sort-of dual presence as a publisher of “weird tales”, EC Comics-type stuff, and crime fiction – usually dark, almost always tempered with black comedy. We have plans to spread out more – take the weird side towards more horror, sci-fi and urban fantasy; expand from crime into more literary -tinged mystery and gothic fiction.

Any advice for those thinking about starting their own small press to fill void in a niche market?

Diversify. Serving a niche is fine, serving several works better. More than anything, just like writing what you love, publish what you love. While publishing is a business, if you’re smaller potatoes – julienne, even – why waste time on material you don’t believe in? Why waste passion on books you wouldn’t want to read. Here’s the tip. You’re going to have to read these books. Over and over and over. They might as well be the kind you really enjoy. Seek out authors that you find exciting, not just profitable names. If you help those emerging writers who are doing really vibrant and exceptional work, the world will eventually notice, and you may be the one who gave them that break. Surround yourself with authors and editors that you respect and really connect with, and treat them with respect in turn. Word gets around. If you do good work, and you treat people professionally, you can build a business. If you’re in it to make fast deals and crap out product en mass? You may make a little money to start, but you’ll be dead in the water by your second or third project, and nobody is going to want to work with you. Of course, if you’re treating it like a scam, you probably haven’t read this far because I’m not talking about revenue streams and Facebook ads. Be good. Be true. Tell stories. That’s what it should always be about.

 

Axel Howerton is a former entertainment journalist, and the author of the Arthur Ellis Award nominated detective caper “Hot Sinatra”, the modern gothic fairytale “Furr”, and the forthcoming “Wolf & Devil” urban fantasy series. His work – including short stories, columns, poetry and essays – have appeared the world over, in no fewer than five languages. Axel is a former Prairies director of the Crime Writers of Canada, and a member of the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association, the Calgary Crime Writers, and the Kintsugi Poets. He is also the editor of the books “Death by Drive-In”, “AB Negative”, and “Tall Tales of the Weird West”, and is the Calgary chair of the Chiaroscuro national reading series, and the organizer behind one of Canada’s first recurring “Noir At The Bar” events, #NoirBarYYC.

 

 

The Key to a Successful Crit Group – A 29 Year Example

There is a ‘special sauce’ when it come to making group dynamics work and having an effective writers group requires its own special brand of nurturing.

I’ve been a member of the Imaginative Fiction Writers’ Association (IFWA) for several years and I value every moment spent with this group. Founded in 1988 (yes, as of this writing it has been together for 29 years!) IFWA has nurtured, trained, and supported many writers along their writing career paths.

What is IFWA’s secret to success?

There are several factors but my favorite four (besides the fact that the members are awesome people) are:

1) It is not a book club. It is a writing group for writers who want to improve their craft and hone their skills.
To that end, the monthly meeting begins with crits. In the previous month, two people volunteered a work to be critiqued at teh curernt meeting. The work is no more than 5,000 words and usually is either a first chapter or a short story although we have had epic poetry. Two people volunteer to provide a a critique. There are rules for how to critique. To learn more about the art of critiquing, you can read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 on a series I wrote on critiques.

The critique porrtion of hte meeting begins with the author reading their story for ten minutes (a necessary skill we all need to practice). Each person critiquing the story gets five minutes to give the author feedback. An opportunity is given to the author to respond and only then is the group at large allowed to provide their feedback (for five minutes) to the author. These guidelines are strictly enforced.

The first time I experienced this process, it was nerve wracking. I read too quickly because I wanted to read the whole story in my allotted ten minutes. Mistake! So, I learned how to read calmly and more slowly. The second time it was much better. Some comments I agreed with and others I didn’t but I had to practice what I knew in my head – that there were things I needed to hear so I could learn them; that everyone has their own opinion and if you ask for it, you have to respect it, no matter what you do with it; and people are much kinder, much gentler than that stupid critic in my head!!!

That’s the thing, everyone in this group offers insight and wisdom, from a reader’s perspective and a writer/editor’s perspective on how the story can be improved. We do it from a genuine desire to see each other succeed. And we run the gamut of skill sets for our members include professional writers, editors, and beginners. No matter what stage any of us are at, we all have something to offer and something to learn – and we know it! This form of humbleness is the group’s core value and that’s why I think it’s been successful for so long.

2) The group isn’t exclusive.
We have every form of writing (screen, short story, novel, novella, graphic art, comic, etc.) and although we are a group for speculative fiction writers, we have lots of other genres and cross genres represented (fantasy, science fiction, horror, thriller, detective science fiction, noir, space opera, and fairy tale to name a few). Some members are published, some edit anthologies (and write too), some are not published. But we are all there with a view to encourage and support each other while encouraging growth in craft and business skills.

Then there are the splitters groups. Splitters groups are formed by members who have specific interests or needs. For example, I belong to a critique group which comments on novels and shorter works with a view to being submitted.

Our members are at all stages of development, including beginners, those trying to break into the market, and published and award winning authors. The group also counts many small publishers and well-known authors as friends.

3) A pay-it-forward attitude is practiced within the group and the larger writing community.
We help each other out with our projects. We share what we know. We organize writing events such as a writers’ weekend, workshops, manage a short story contest, produce an anthology exclusive to the group, attend and participate in national and international cons, and are a large part of organizing and volunteering in the local, annual con When Words Collide. We attend each other’s book launches, readings, and celebrate the victories of getting published and share the disappointment of a rejection. We are there for each other.

4) Skills sessions.
Every meeting has a skills session which can be on any aspect of writing from craft to business. Sometimes the learning comes in the form of a presentation, sometimes it’s a discussion, and sometimes it’s a little of both. But always we learn, always we share and after the meeting that sharing continues at a local pub.

IFWA has a lot to offer its membership because it’s members contribute in so many ways. The group’s enthusiasm is infectious and the friendships are long lasting. This writers group definitely has its own brand of ‘special sauce’.

Two Great Examples of How to Lie

Lying well is a great art – a con artist will agree, but so will the great writers. It is a much used device and character trait and if done well, the reader is drawn into the drama. Lying has many uses: to further the plot, to plant clues, create mystery and tension in a cat and mouse game of truth finding, to introduce information without being forthright about it, to pace the story and timing of reveals, to change direction in the plot, and to misdirect readers to increase the shock and thrill of a reveal.

All these uses make the lie a very powerful, multi-purpose tool.

Lying is more than the art of misdirection, although in a good mystery there’ll be plenty of red herrings and misdirection which increases the thrill of the reveals. Lying is about the relationships characters have with each other and with themselves. Who lies to whom?

In its simplest form, a character can either lie to herself or to someone else. Whether it’s about a personal flaw, a false belief which forms her worldview, or a moral justification which conflicts with an authority such as the law, a religious or ethical code, or it may be avoidance to face the consequences of a truth.

The art of a good lie is that the reader will begin to believe those lies, despite clues to the contrary. This increases the shock value of reveals. That’s what makes the cat and mouse game of truth versus lie so scintillating.

The danger of the lie is that it can alienate the reader. If your protagonist lies to characters, it had better be for a good reason because it will affect how your reader feels about the character. Every protagonist has a moral code and readers expect her to act within that code. The code may include lying all the time or only in certain circumstances such as to protect others or oneself, for personal gain, to hurt, to entrap, to avoid a truth. Depending on how this is done, reader emotion can range from sympathy to horror, and your protagonist can be seen as either heroic or villainous. We all lie, even our favorite heroes do, that’s part of what makes each of us human and our characters relatable. So, lying must be part of the writer’s toolkit.

Recently, I read two books which employed lies in very different ways. Both authors intrigued me with their choices and their consistent, believable execution of the lie. In both stories, lying was central to how each mystery was created and solved. However, the lies weren’t merely fibbing or speaking a falsehood, although that played into the dramas as well. In Death by a Honey Bee by Abigail Keam, most lies were justified because of a moral and ethical code which doesn’t fully conform to law enforcement’s rules which means adjusting the truth and meeting out justice from the amateur sleuth’s personal moral code. In The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena primarily used omission, the withholding of information, by each character.

Thes two ways of using lies in these novels couldn’t have been more different, but the effect was the same – a mystery was created, a puzzle needed to be solved and the sleuth (one a detective and the other an amateur) had to uncover the truth. Keam’s use of the lie, however, created a cat and mouse game filled with red herrings. Josiah Reynolds, a middle aged beekeeper has her own brand of lying and justice based on her personal Southern Kentucky code of justice. She lies to the police, lies to herself, and lies to others. Despite the lies the protagonist tells, or perhaps because of them, Keam manages to create a believable and likeable protagonist. Josiah’s lies to others sometimes comes in the form of pranks, like when she lies about her young and gay lawyer friend Matt being her lover.

By contrast, Lapina’s characters, except for the detective, withheld major information which was slowly meted out to create a suspenseful novel which was hard to put down. Her trick, I think, was not to let the reader know immediately what information was withheld, or who was lying about what and only to use the reveals to move the plot forward. She used other forms of lying such as omission, secrets, lying to the police, lying to oneself. Lying to oneself was one of the most cunning devices, however. Without spoiling the plot, the mother, Anna suffers from post partum depression and her needing to face some hard facts about herself, lying to herself and to others about her condition, is excruciating and the tension builds as we want to know what really happened.

In this novel, everyone is hiding something, and no one is telling until and only if they absolutely have to. Masterfully done- a setting of every parent’s nightmare, a child has been kidnapped from Anna and Marco’s home while they were next door at the neighbour’s for a dinner party. Anna and Marco love their little girl and the torture of her being gone, of time passing and her not being found are excruciating. Detective Rasbach pulls out their secrets, one by one and slowly reveals the omissions.

The Couple Next Door is a must read for Lapena is not just a writer, she’s one of the Fates, weaving in a thread of omission, a thread of an incomplete truth, then gently pulling it, leaving it for a while only to come back to tug at it and then having it unravel. Keam’s Josiah Reynolds series is also a must read on not only how to make a lying protagonist likeable but also because Josiah has a refreshing worldview, albeit a little quirky.

The best way to learn to lie is to study the lie and the techniques used by Keam and Lapina are great studies (and reads), indeed.

The One Friendship Writers Must Not Forget

This month, we’ve read posts about how friends in a story can serve to illuminate plot and the protagonist. We’ve also heard about how critique groups can be inspiring and help us to become better writers. Our friendships, whether with writers or others can help us to overcome personal and health concerns which affect our writing life. But there is one other friendship we must salute – and that’s the reader’s friendship with a book.

Books entertain us, engross us in their characters and worlds. They teach us a little about ourselves, our world, and our relationship to and with each other. Every well-crafted book, as every author knows, requires research and thought not only about character, but about philosophy, technology, politics, clothing, food, and all things most dear and valued.

The first time I read an excellent book, it is to me just as if I had gained a new friend. When I read over a book I have perused before, it resembles the meeting with an old one. – Oliver Goldsmith
 

A characters’ hardships become our hardships, and their triumphs, disappointments, loves and hates also become ours. We cheer them, we jeer them. We bite our nails with worry and lose sleep over them. We want to visit their worlds, to chat with them, and often we don’t want our journey with them to end. How many people do we know who allow us to know them so intimately?

Through books, we can safely travel into the past without fear about being stomped on or eaten by dinosaurs. We can live on a space station without zero gravity affecting our bodies. We can visit the what-ifs of alternate history or live with hobbits and faeries. Or, we can visit the tender, the romantic, the grieving, the dying parts of our hearts, the very soul of human existence.

Books are our lovers, our mentors, our guides and philosophers. They are our heart break, our inspiration, our voyage into the fantastic, the scary, the parts of ourselves we both desire and dread. They are also the place where we can learn about ourselves, our world, hard science, speculative science, about religions, foods and customs of places we can never visit, or we can learn to cook or fix the plumbing.

Comfort, salvation, or escape from our daily realities can be found in books. Some books help us through our hardest moments when they help us face the hard truths. From this we go forward a little wiser, and a little humbler.

A book, too, can be a star, ‘explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,’ a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe. – Madeleine L’Engle

For all these reasons, every writer makes a pact with the reader when giving a gift of a new friend. That pact is a promise of a lasting friendship borne of captivating characters; a world wherein the reader is so immersed that friendship is undeniable.

And yet, books are odd friends. You can’t yell, at them, I mean, yes you can but they won’t respond or yell back. You can burn them or spill tea on them and they won’t complain or file a complaint of book abuse. They are a one-way friendship, of sorts, whose ideas and words can niggle and torment for days or even years even after the covers have been closed. These hauntings of sorts, can be either the most pleasant or the most tormenting, creating a duelling conversation of voices in our heads.

No matter what his rank or position may be, the lover of books is the richest and the happiest of the children of men. – J.A. Langford

The reason some books can haunt and invade our psyches is because they’ve struck cords of doubt, or love, or longing, or thought and reflection deeply within our own hearts. Thus, every book becomes a special friend to every person who reads it. Every reader brings their own unique world view to the story, their values, understanding of relationships and what is normal, even their own meaning for specific words. No matter the author’s intent, no matter what the author conceived, felt or saw in her imaginings, the reader’s unique perspective changes and twists the author’s world ever so slightly, thus making that book a unique friend.

The book has an unusual power, not only to become one’s best friend, but to also create friendships between people. These friendships occur when readers enjoy and embrace the same book. Irving Stone said it best when he wrote: “There are no faster or firmer friendships than those formed between people who love the same books.”

For all these reasons, there are books we must forever keep on our shelves, despite yellowing pages or dust bunnies proliferating – these books are friends forever.

I have an odd collection of forever-friends-books: a dictionary I used to read when in grade school (that’s my nerdy friend), a biochemistry book from university (the science geek I love); Captain Underpants (need I say more?}, a translated series of books Women’s Voices in Ukrainian Literature (this is everyday history at it’s best); How to do Psychic Readings Through Touch; and the list goes on! The point is, is that these books not only inform, they each play their part in satisfying a need of the heart, a curiosity of the mind and spirit. To ask any one human to be this kind of friend would be an impossible achievement for anyone.

Books are the one freindship writers should never overlook. For many reasons, our words affect how people not only see and interact with their world, but also how they feel. We have a duty, a sacred trust, to be as engrossing, as engaging as we can be in creating spell binding worlds with characters who will stay with the reader long after the covers are closed.

Sometinmes you never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
 Dr. Seuss