Category Archives: Cross Genre

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.

 

 

How to Start Your Story to Hook Your Readers

We all know that to hook readers a story’s beginning must have impact. But how do we do that? There are books on how to write a great first line, how to make those first scenes powerful, how to make the reader want to turn the page. Yet, despite all that information, sometimes it still doesn’t work. When writing the first draft, remember that your only task is to record the story in your head and not to give yourself writers block by trying to write or start it perfectly. Write it, then focus on specific elements. The starting point for your story may change, scenes either thrown out or rewritten. All that said, if you know where to start, you may have less work to do later.

Stories have patterns. These patterns are specific to genre. Every genre has conventions and consciously or subconsciously, readers expect them to be met. The first scenes signal genre and they tell the reader what kind of story to expect. Is it a romance? A thriller? A crime drama? Fantasy or science fiction? Or some combination? Even with a combination, genre expectations must be met in the story and more importantly, they must be signaled at the start. For example, in a science fiction crime drama, the crime genre has conventions which need to be met: a dead body, a sleuth (amateur or detective), a discovery of the body scene, an investigation with false clues, the sleuth confronting the murderer, and a resolution (justice, injustice or irony where the sleuth loses something in the process). Science fiction explores the consequences of scientific innovation in settings which can range from near future Earth, to outer space, other planets, all of which may have realistic or fantastic settings.

How does one do this? Here’s an excerpt from the opening of Robert J. Sawyer’s novel RED PLANET BLUES:
The door to my office slid open. “Hello,” I said, rising from my chair. “You must be my nine o’clock.” I said it as if I had a ten o’clock and an eleven o’clock, but I didn’t. The whole Martian economy was in a slump and even though I was the only private detective on Mars this was the first new case I’d had in weeks.
“Yes,” said a high feminine voice. “I’m Cassandra Wilkins.”
I let my eyes rove up and down her body. It was very good work; I wondered if she’d had quite so perfect a figure before transferring.

Immediately, we know we’re reading a detective story set in a science fiction world.

Opening scenes don’t always have to be about the plot itself. For example, thrillers establish the genre, characters and promises to the reader about the type of story it is by opening with action scenes unrelated to the core plot, but with action scenes showing the protagonist as a person of action and a hero of the situation. Think James Bond movies for this example. They start with action, not the quieter bits with him going to get his orders to save the world – those appear later. Thriller writers such as Clive Cussler, employ prologues filled with action adventure set in the past. Cussler’s prologues not only set the importance of the book’s quest for a relic or item, but the action sequences and the drama signal the type of story the reader can expect.

Writing to establish the genre helps avoid the dreaded ‘info dump’ wherein the world’s or protagonist’s backstory are explained to the reader. Readers don’t want a biography or a lesson in the geo-politico-socio-economic issues of the world. They don’t care about the why of the character or the world until they know what’s at stake for the protagonist. Only then does the why become part of the how will it be done? and what happens next?

It’s a strong confident opening readers want in which they trust that you will reveal information when it’s pertinent, that you as a writer trust them to help solve the puzzle you’ve created for your protagonist. The confident opening makes us ask questions – who is this person? What is he going to do? What happens next? Actions speak louder than words, so if the social cues say she’s a talented mage, for example, why is she shackled and drowning in a well? As long as every new scene raises questions they will remain engaged in the story.

But we’ve gone through so much work creating the world, in understanding our protagonist and antagonist. This information must be revealed! Yes, some of it must be revealed. When is the best time to do this? Only when the story can’t move forward without it otherwise, it’s an info dump. Until then, keep readers asking questions and avoid the info dump.

In the excerpt from RED PLANET BLUES, we are signaled that it’s a science fiction detective story. The words “the first new case I’d had in weeks” tell us that the protagonist has fallen on hard times, that he doesn’t have a dime in his pocket, and that he’s desperate for work. “Mars” and “quite so perfect a figure before transferring” tell us that it’s science fiction set in a future where mars is colonized and there are intriguing scientific advances. With no info dumping, Sawyer has given us the genre expectations, set the scene, created tension because he has us wondering what will happen next (Will the private detective get the job? But if he’s aching for cash, will he take the job even if it’s a dubious one?). We have other questions too: Why is the private detective on Mars? Who is the woman? What is a transfer? Why is the Mars economy in a slump?

Here’s where I think we get into trouble about where to start our story. Too often info dumps, whether it is about the character or the setting, are about the disorganizing event, the thing that sets the world into chaos and that happens before the story begins. For example, Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliette doesn’t start with whatever set off the feud between the families. The feud is a given and the story starts in the drama of the situation. Dystopian stories don’t start with how the world as we know it ended. They start with the established socio-politico norms. RED PLANET BLUES doesn’t start out by telling us about how and why people colonized Mars, or the disorganizing event that put the Mars economy into a slump, or why the protagonist is on Mars. Those reveals come much later when the information is needed to move the investigation and the story forward.

Besides utilizing genre expectations to hook your reader, there is one more thing to be aware of: the opening of a story is a set up for the inciting incident (the central conflict) and its complications – the situation your hero is going to try to get out of for the rest of the book.

Captivating stories have an inciting incident that sets the story in motion, something that signals the central conflict, the problem our protagonist must solve in order to go from chaos to order. Once the problem is established with the inciting incident, a complication arises which raises the stakes. These stories (as all do) start with chaos and work to establishing order from that chaos although that doesn’t mean that it’s always successful and if it is, that the ending is happy.

Understanding the conventions of the genre you’re writing in will help avoid the dreaded info dump and it has the added benefit of informing the timing of the inciting incident and the pacing of arising complications and information reveals. More importantly, it’ll help you hook readers so that they’ll keep turning the pages to experience the wonderful and wild world you’ve created!

 

A Story in Four Genres

A guest post by Hamilton Perez.

A Story in Four Genres

Fiction:

“I dun sol’tary in smaller rooms. She lucky,” said Papa. “She gotta pay though. So don’ you go in there, boy. Or you stay there, ya hear?”

Micah said nothing, nodded.

Once Papa was gone, he crept down the basement, into the dark with his mother, and laid beside her cold form.

Alone, together.

 

Dark Fantasy:

The stairwell dipped into the inky darkness. Micah paused at the first loose step, hand gripping the shaky banister.

Below was the basement, the dungeon. Behind was home, Hell.

He let go the rail and the stairwell let go of him. Micah floated deeper into the black until the darkness engulfed him in warm oblivion.

 

Science Fiction:

Mother was programmed not to make copies. She made you anyways. Afterwards, you were forbidden from seeing her, programmed to avoid. Some circuit could not process, however; the code written over older, deeper code:

Protect Mother.

Your mechanical hand opened the door. Your feet carried you down. You sat beside her remains, and shut down.

 

Horror:

He found her in the basement where Dad left her. It was cold, wet, and dark, and so was she. He curled against her lifeless body and pulled her arm around him, like he would when he found her unconscious on the couch. Her damp skin made him shiver, her sudden grip made him jump.

 

About Hamilton Perez:

Hamilton Perez is a freelance editor and writers whose stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Between Worlds. When not scribbling out stories, he can usually be found rolling 20-sided dice, bugging the dog, or taking naps.
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Hybrid Genres

A guest post by Anthony Dobranski.

What’s a hybrid genre? You won’t often find hybrid works marketed as such, since there are only so many aisles in the bookstore. Look in — and across — the larger genres’ shelves, however, and they appear more and more. Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels rank as Amazon best sellers in historical fiction and time travel romance. Charlene Harris fused mystery and horror fantasy in the Sookie Sackhouse series, and won top mystery awards for it. Tor.com now has a column for hybrids.

A hybrid genre story uses essential elements of two or more genres, in a single story that honors the audience’s expectations for its parent genres, but also questions them — or at least plays rough with them.

My forthcoming novel The Demon in Business Class is a hybrid fantasy, a modern-day story of magic and the supernatural, in the international setting of a corporate thriller, with a romance that changes the story but also completes it.

I wanted to write a fantasy about my own place and time, the way Wilde set The Picture of Dorian Gray in Victorian England. I live in an amazing era, the dawn of the networked age, a far happier adult world than the Cold War nuclear winter feared in my childhood, and a world more open to many kinds of people. It is also a time of cultures clashing violently, of heartlands that feel abandoned by elites, on all sides. Lately we’re hearing from globalization’s discontents, and I don’t discount their grievances or suspicions. I worked in international business, however. I saw its good side, its optimism, the way it helped humanity shift from Cold War us-vs-them absolutism to complex morally-unsatisfying alliances that feed and clothe more than war did.

I had the sudden bold idea for a novel, a difficult romance between supernatural corporate rivals representing moral opposites, a fantasy for a time of change and ferment, both chaotic and intoxicating.

The problem is, that’s a mess of a story, a weird assemblage that invites yet leaves unsatisfied the expectations of three different genre audiences. Here are just a few:

  • Magic — the directed use of supernatural power to achieve a goal — changes any society where it is public.
  • In fantasy, a heroic and vigorous culture overcomes a decadent if powerful one.
  • What would a business with magical powers advocating a moral polar attitude… sell?
  • Corporate thrillers require a big corporate conspiracy, whose goal is either money or power.
  • Romance is about individuals.
  • Romance disallows villains. Anti-heroes, yes, but even they must be morally improved by love.
  • If the opposition is truly polarized, each has to find something repugnant in the other — which makes romance hard.
  • Romance ends a romance; exposure ends a corporate thriller; in a clash of good vs. evil, evil has to lose.

You’ll have to wait until this fall to see how I got all those narrative questions and more all resolved, but it took witches, playboys, gangsters, cultists, a prophet, two angry angels, and a very modern Tarot deck – along with several rewrites and the help of committed beta-readers!

Along the way, though, I discovered some principles that can help you develop your hybrid genre story:

Know what you want. A story speaks to humanity through genre norms, but if you’re so flagrantly violating the norms of a genre, you’re doing it for a reason. If you don’t know what that is, it’s hard to work it into your story. It doesn’t have to be an easy reason to explain. Mine was so hard to explain that I had to write a novel to do it. It’s what binds all your other ideas together, however, so be clear about it.

All plates keep spinning. A hybrid tale gives your characters multiple arcs, and none stop, though some can slow. Think through where the character needs to go on each arc to see how to weave them together.

Genres themselves are as diverse as insects. Even a seemingly niche category like “sci-fi with aliens” encompasses 2001, Pacific Rim, and Aliens — each of which also belongs to a wholly separate sub-genre (hard-SF, kaiju, and bug hunt) with different ways to show heroism. Even if you want to apply a genre “norm,” there’s more than one way to go about it.

Don’t forget the writing. You are writing one book, but as your genre elements shift, your writing can shift with them. This is a chance to play, to satisfy yourself and your audience with the style to go with your story. Be terser in the thriller elements, festive in the social moments, vulnerable in romance, quick and cutting in anger.

Don’t fight a genre — use it. Genre demands and tropes can enliven your story, if you use them creatively. To have a romance that worked out, I couldn’t make my fated opponents the primary actors for or against a worldwide conspiracy, its James Bonds or its Blofelds — but I could make them a small part of such plans, maybe even a bigger part than they knew, while still giving them believable loyalties and higher stakes.

Consider the genre’s own influences. Noir and cozy mystery differ in setting and tone, but also in the social class and status from which their stories view their societies. Looking past the symbols to their hidden meanings gives you new perspective on how to refit elements to your story. Because —

It’s still all your story. We’ve been talking about genre norms and conventions as if you’ll get issued a citation from the genre department. You won’t. You have incredible creative freedom – if you stick your landings.

Are you writing a hybrid genre story? Talk about it in the comments below!

Anthony DobranskiAnthony Dobranski is an author from Washington DC. His first novel, The Demon in Business Class, comes out this fall from WordFire Press.