Tomorrow, Duel Visions, a weird fiction / horror collaboration by two veterans of those genres, Louise Sorrensen and Misha Burnett will be released. For the title think dueling banjos. The authors went into this collaboration thinking it would be one of contrasting styles but found the end effect was one of synchronicity .
Reading Misha’s and Louise’s alternate stories (10 total), involves some shifting of mental gears as the reader moves from one to the next. I’m really not a horror fan so Misha caught me out, as his first story, Black Dog is a thoughtful piece on life after death but his next offering, The Silk Of Yesterday’s Gown, turns the Clive Barker dial past ten with a story concerning control, and masochistic sexual fetishes gone wrong. Silk is definitely not my cup of tea so I was glad that his next story, The Summer of Love, turned out to be Misha’s version of Bring the Jubilee. Misha has never read Ward Moore’s book but uses the same concept to good effect.
Louise’s Ragged Angels was influenced by a trip she took to Vancouver in May 2017 and her shock at seeing the drug problem there first hand. She quickly thought of the story’s concept but couldn’t start on it until 3 months later. Immediately after she found time to start writing, she was called away to help on the farm and bring the hay in. Unable to write, she “started to write it in my head” and put herself to sleep at night figuring out what happened next. Three days later, the haying was finished, she had the story down and only needed to put it on paper. A few days after finishing typing, she walked past the barn and the title, Ragged Angels “just popped into my head”. I mention all that as she may have come across an extremely effective method for idea generation. Who knows what the combination was? Hard work which by its nature allowed her to think about the story, pondering the story as she went to sleep and deep sleep brought on by hard work combined in her subconscious to make the idea generation and development process easier. Something must have been at work in her subconsciousness as the reminder provided by walking past the barn a few days later delivered the perfect title. We didn’t explore this in the Q&A as it was the first and so far, only time she wrote a story in this way. I hope she lets us know if she tries that again next harvest.
And, by the way, Ragged Angels is a good vampire story. Sinker, Sailor will be enjoyed by Lovecraft fans and The Green Truck is definitely weird fiction and a good take on the aftermath of suicide, complimenting Misha’s Black Dog.
Q&A on the next page is not to be missed. One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to review this book is I enjoyed interviewing Misha the first time around and the thoughts behind his answers do not disappoint, while Louise proves she is one to keep on eye on going forward. We discuss the merits of short fiction, their writing styles and preferences and how their collaboration on Duel Visions came about.
Scott Cole: Louise, please let the CH blog readers know about your new anthology, ‘Duel Visions’ with Misha Burnett.
Louise Sorensen: Collaborating on an anthology was a new experience for me. I did a lot of the editing and proofreading, and there was a lot of back and forth on the cover until we decided on the final one. As the deadlines were pretty close, it was intense. We finished about a month ago. Winter socked in, and I went back to editing other pieces, and revising two fantasy and one scifi short story I’d been working on. I’m looking forward to the publication.
Scott Cole: Misha, has Duel Visions taken up most your time or have you been busy with other projects?
Misha Burnett: Honestly, aside from writing the stories themselves, I probably did the least amount of work in putting the book together. Louise is a very skilled editor and did proofs on all of our stories. She and Alex put the book together, I just said, “Oh, yes, that looks fine” a lot.
So I did a lot of writing. I published eight stories last year; “mDNA” in Superversive’s Planetary Mercury, “Black Dog” (which will also be in Duel Visions) in Sins Of The Gods, “The Happiest Place On Earth” in Superversive’s Planetary Venus, “Dead Man’s Chest” in Millhaven’s Tales Of Terror, “Nox Invictus” in Millhaven’s Fierce Tales: Savage Lands, “An Interrupted Scandal” in Cirsova #10, “Endless Summer” in Utopia Pending, and “Grand Theft: Nightmare” in Lagrange Books’ Ye Olde Magick Shoppe.
I also completed Bad Dreams & Broken Hearts, which I posted on Steemit. I am not entirely happy with that project, nor with the publishing platform. It was a learning experience. I have used the setting that I created for that novel for other stories (“An Interrupted Scandal” and “Grand Theft: Nightmare”.)
If I had to sum up my career since we last spoke, I’d say that I have come to terms with being a short fiction author. It’s taken me a long time to get past my own internal prejudice against short fiction and really embrace that identity.
SC: Louise, how do you feel about short fiction?
LS: I’ve read anthologies since I could pick up a book, so I love short stories. I wasn’t a born writer, I was a visual artist. A painter. A severe ice storm in January 1998 and nine days without electricity left me with a mental block against painting. So I started writing with poetry courses, and then creative writing courses. I followed Chuck Wendig on Twitter, did his flash fiction prompts for two years, and wrote about forty stories. Many of those had a thousand word limit. Along with Twitter’s 140 character limit and a love affair with Elmore Leonard’s books, I learned to be succinct. I had no thought of being published until about five years ago, when I realized that my stories were as good as many that were published. And as a writer, you start to edit everything you read. It takes away some of the enjoyment, but there’s also satisfaction in that improving the clarity of the writing, makes the story better.
I wrote two novels. One I finished and got professionally edited, the other I didn’t finish but could. After that, I had a short story published in an ASMSG Romance anthology. My story was a satirical SciFi romantic parody called Fizzlesnitch. It didn’t really fit the genre, but the editor liked it, and got the humor. So I started submitting stories and had a few published over the last three years. And I discovered that I like writing short stories and I don’t like writing novels.
A short story has to create a convincing world, story line, and believable characters, in few words. It must be polished to a lesser extent than a poem, but a greater extent than a novel. Each word must have a purpose. To me, poems are the jewels of the writing kingdom, novels are the gold bars, and short stories are the pearls.
I realize that some people think short stories aren’t real writing, but they were the foundation for episodes of the Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and more recently the TV series Electric Dreams, based on Phillip K. Dick’s short stories.
And Alice Munro, the renowned Canadian short-story writer, won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature.
You can’t get more legitimate than that.
SC: Misha, what was your internal prejudice against short fiction?
MB: The idea that short fiction is just practice for writing novels. That it’s not serious writing. I think that attitude is very prevalent in the publishing world today. It’s certainly true that it is much harder to make money writing short fiction. Writers today have a lot of pressure to produce novels, particularly long novels that are part of multi-volume epics.
And I think that’s a shame. There are writers today who are capable of producing phenomenal short fiction who are writing novels instead. William Gibson, for example–as much I enjoyed Neuromancer, I think it lacks the punch of “The Winter Market” or “Fragments Of A Hologram Rose” or “New Rose Hotel”. He himself said as much in the introduction to his collection Burning Chrome. Clive Barker is another author who I felt took a step backwards in switching from short stories to novels. I love Imagica and Weaveworld, but they don’t have the rawness and vitality of, say, “The Body Politic” or “In The Hills, The Cities” or “The Last Illusion”.
And then you have Orson Scott Card, who has essentially made a career out of expanding great short stories into mediocre novels. I always tell people who like the novel of Ender’s Game that they should read the original short story–in fact, get a copy of his first collection, Unaccompanied Sonata, if you can find it.
SC: Misha, do you have basic rules of thumb as to what makes good long or short fiction?
MB: I’d paraphrase Fight Club’s rule #7–stories go on as long as they have to. The second hardest part of writing fiction is saying what you need to say. The hardest part of writing fiction is knowing when you’ve said it and then shutting up. We’re writers because we love prose, we love the sound of our voice. It’s a necessary part of being a writer, but it’s also a critical weakness and the good writers see it as a weakness. Everyone likes to talk about writer’s block, and, sure, it’s tough when you can’t find the right words, but a bigger problem is filling the page with wrong words because you think that producing verbiage is the same thing as producing story.
A good novel is a good story that takes a novel to tell. Sadly, a lot of authors have a short story idea, but think that if they want to be a “real writer” they have to pad it out to novel length.
SC: Louise, what are your personal guidelines to writing a good story?
LS: The story is as long as it has to be until it’s over. Then you’ve reached the end. I don’t worry about word count, unless there’s a limit in submission requirements. And that’s also the reason I haven’t published as much as I might, because if your story doesn’t fit an arbitrary submission word count, and you have to pad it to extend it, or carve it to reduce it, it won’t be as good as it should have. I write and edit mercilessly. That is, I aim to be honest and write the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story. So help me Heinlein.
Unlike Misha and many other writers, I don’t love prose, or the written word. I don’t like long descriptions. The story is what stirs me. When I read, I’m analyzing the writing as I go along, but with the best stories, I’m drawn so deeply in that I don’t notice the writing. Misha’s stories are pithy and succinct. He doesn’t let the prose get in his way.
For me, the story is the thing. Every word in the piece must be the foundation for and support the story.
SC: Misha, you mention authors that were excellent short fiction writers but had less than stellar results when transitioning to long fiction. Do you think there are stylistic or even temperamental differences that make an author excel in one or other length of stories?
Do I know what those differences are? Not so much. For my own part, if I just write the story until it is done, without worrying about word count, I tend to end up around 7500 words. I find it very difficult to keep a story–any story–under 5000 words (which is a pity, because there are markets that have an upper limit of 5k for submissions) and over 10,000 words I start losing focus and am just rambling.
Why this is, I’m not sure. Maybe I just have a short attention span compared to novelists.
SC: Louise, how do you feel about that?
LS: Stylistic or temperamental differences in writers who transition from short stories to novels … I think there must be. I definitely like to get in, tell the story, and get out. One of the authors I can think of who does both lengths well is Stephen King. Another is Heinlein.
But I’ve read many novels that were extremely padded. One novel that stands out in memory, spent the first six hundred pages describing the architecture of Atlanta, Georgia. Although the writing was beautiful and well edited, I kept waiting for something to happen. As I did in those days, I kept reading to find out the merit of the book. The writer finally got around to the action of the story in about the final hundred pages. It was basically a short story tacked onto the end of a long historical travelogue. I wondered how it ever got published. It was even made into a movie. Although I’ve never seen it, I suspect it was based on the short story, and not the architecture.
So I believe that not every can author do it.
SC: Misha. Do you know any authors that mastered both formats?
MB: The first name that comes to mind is Larry Niven. He seems to be able to operate at two different speeds. His short fiction has a different voice than his novels–they have a minimum of description and are usually based around one single, easy to formulate, premise. A lot of them are also very funny. For novels, Niven seems to be able to drop into a lower gear and spend more time fleshing out the world and the characters.
Roger Zelazny is another one. You can see that clearly in My Name Is Legion. The first two sections were written as short stories, while the third, “Home Is The Hangman”, is clearly written as the last half of a novel. It works, the stories hang together and the narrator is consistent, but there is a definite shift in voice.
But then, Zelazny was an experimental formalist and enjoyed playing with the structure of prose for its own sake. (cf Doorways In The Sand, which has the unique (so far as I know) structure of beginning each chapter with a cliffhanger and then going back to explain how the character got into that position. It’s done so skillfully that it takes several chapters for the reader to catch on to the game.) I expect he understood the nuts and bolts of fiction better than anyone else working in the English language. I still mourn his loss.
SC: Misha, when we last spoke, we discussed New Wave fiction (focused character psychology with an emphasis of poetic language over scientific accuracy). Has your writing continued along that path?
MB: I call my work New Wave. I’m not sure what other people would call it. From my perspective my work follows a clear trajectory. I’m getting better at doing the stuff that I like and learning how to cut out the parts that I don’t like.
But I would say that my understanding of what “New Wave” means–at least in terms of my own work–has undergone some changes since last we discussed it. Recently I watched The Departed by Martin Scorsese and was struck all over again by what a brilliant visual storyteller the man is. His films are a series of shots that flow from one to the next and you almost don’t need the dialogue–it’s the images that drive the story.
Directors who really understand the art of film–and I’d add John Carpenter, John Sayles, Hitchcock (of course), Brian DePalma, just to name a few–know how to operate the visual grammar of the medium. Picture, picture, picture, (now everybody’s dead) final picture, closing credits.
Filmmaking is telling a story with pictures. So what is fiction, telling a story with words? Not at all. The word is not the unit of narration in the sense that the shot is the unit of narration in a film. Individual words are like individual frames in a film–if you notice they are there something’s wrong with the mechanism.
Fiction is telling a story with concepts. Ideas. Images, not in the visual sense, but in the emotional sense. It’s a unique art form because what matters is what you can’t see or hear or touch.
The hero of Dune is the ideal of ecology as an existential science–you can only understand an ecology by becoming part of the ecology. The death of Liet-Kynes in the desert is the culmination of his life’s work–he has become the desert.
The hero of Starship Troopers is the ideal of courage. Johnny Rico is the conduit by which courage, as an abstract, becomes concrete, the voice with which it speaks. The paragraph that opens the novel (“I always get the shakes before a drop…”) is courage coming up and introducing itself to the reader.
I could speak in terms of “conceit” or “theme”, but I think I mean hero. Fiction is the arena in which ideas battle it out. This can be done badly (Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you now) and fiction becomes polemic. But I think it’s always there, just by virtue of the medium of language and the human animal’s multivalent use of it.
If I say, for example, “Sherlock Holmes vs. James Bond” the phrase suggests a clash of methodologies, of philosophical approaches to a problem. The difference in the biographical details of the characters is irrelevant. You could set that story in a milieu alien to both of them, say, 13th Century Rome, and give them both new names. Make Bond a soldier of Frederick II and Holmes a priest of Gregory IX, and make them be forced to work together to find the poisoner of a bishop.
One could write that story with no reference to the original characters, but readers would still think, “Oh, this is Sherlock Holmes vs James Bond” (if one did her or his work well). Because those characters are ideals, not individuals.
I’ve gotten rather far afield from your original question, which was I am still working in New Wave. Yes. However, I also find myself drawn to a simplification of story, a paring down to the essentials. What does the reader absolutely need to know in order for the story to work?
And that streamlining of fiction is antithetical to the spirit of some of the classics of New Wave. Books like VALIS, Dhalgren, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest, are ox-stunning bricks of words. Beautiful words, no doubt about it, but they are like driving across New Mexico. The scenery is magnificent, but basically there is nothing there.
I want my stories to be more like running down to Home Depot to get a replacement faucet before your bathtub overflows and floods the basement. In, out, this is what I need to get the job done, and get your ass back home. Scenery is reduced to things you need to drive around and stuff you can ram right through.
SC: Louise, what’s your take on this?
LS: Hmm. Scott, you define New Wave as ‘Focused character psychology with an emphasis of poetic language over scientific accuracy.’ I googled it, and found it was a literary movement in the 1960s and 1970s, that rejected the simplistic action-adventure of the earlier ’Golden Age’ of SciFi and Fantasy, in favour of more literary and experimental forms, with more emphasis on writing and creativity, and less on hard science and plot. Misha’s comment that some of the stories are ‘ox-stunning bricks of words’ is a good description of some of the experimental works. I never liked Silverberg’s writing. Too much experimental, too little story.
I don’t know that my writing is New Wave. I’d call it Weird. Surreal. I like to think I write like Heinlein, in that I always tell a story. I don’t experiment, unless it’s to follow the rabbit down the rabbit hole. In my SciFi, I stick to hard science. I always have a logical rational backstory for whatever happens, but I don’t always explain it. In my Fantasy, I allow the fantastic, but there must be some logical explanation behind it; another dimension, a parallel universe, different laws of physics.
Like a filmmaker, because my storytelling is visually based, not word based, I tell the story in pictures. I go in knowing the bones of the story, picture the scene in my mind, and write it down to the best of my ability. I don’t try to be poetic. But sometimes I am. As I started out writing poetry, sometimes a line of poetry will pop into my head as I’m writing a scene, and I’ll include that.
SC: Misha. Please tell readers what to expect with Duel Visions.
MB: It’s a collaborative anthology, with five stories each from myself and five from Louise. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any examples of similar anthologies. Generally you either have every story by a different author, or all of them by one author.
So the feel of this book is a bit unusual. We also alternate stories, one from me, one from Louise, which involves some shifting of mental gears as you move from one to the next. That’s a risk, but I think it pays off.
We have different styles and I think (I hope) the cumulative effect is like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups–two great tastes that taste great together.
As for the stories themselves, I think Weird Fiction is probably the best description. There are some Science Fiction elements–genetic engineering in Louise’s “Sinker, Sailor”, time travel and alternate history in my “The Summer Of Love”. Other stories have traditional fantasy elements–sidhe, magic statues, and figures from different classical mythologies.
I explore one of my favorite urban legends in “We Pass From View” and Louise has a modern take on the vampire legend.
So in terms of genre we’re all over the board. My favorite story in the book, Louise’s “The Green Truck” simply resists classification altogether. I don’t know how to describe it, you just have to read it for yourself.
Despite all this–or perhaps because of it–there is an overall theme to the collection that I suppose could be summed with J. B. S. Haldane’s remark, “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
LS: I love Misha’s quote of Haldane!
What can readers expect with Duel Visions?
I was very surprised when I noticed on the second proofreading of the whole work that Misha and I had written stories with similar themes. What was most surprising was that I had been over all the stories many many times with editing and never noticed the similarities before. So although our stories are very different, his anchored in dirt and dust and reality, mine in weird and what? and unbelievable, we are both curious about the same things. It’s almost as though we explore these ideas in different mediums.
I found out yesterday the Misha is working on a story about alien invasion. I am too! Synchronicity? Quantum Entanglement? You can be sure that my take will be much different than Misha’s.
So readers can expect thoughtful, interesting stories crafted mercilessly with love and blood.
SC: Misha. How did the collaborative concept with Louise come about?
MB: Impatience, mostly.
About a year ago I started considering publishing a collection of short fiction. I had a few stories that I had previously published that I wanted to present for a wider audience, and a couple that I’d written for anthologies that hadn’t panned out.
The problem was that I didn’t have enough stories for a full book. So I wanted to find another author to do a collection with.
I had worked with Louise on my 21st Century Pulp anthology (one of the ones that didn’t pan out–our publisher backed out) and I was very impressed with her story “Ragged Angels”. So I asked her if she had any more like that one, and it turned out she did.
Once we started passing stories back and forth the collection kind of took off. It kind of surprised me how the stories and our voices played off each other. And even though we didn’t plan it that way, there are some strong parallels between some of the stories. We each have one that deals with the transformation of a human into an animal, for example, and we each have one in which Death is personified in animal form.
Louise came up with the title Duel Visions, and I thought it was perfect. It’s kind of like Dueling Banjos, but with stories. Not so much fighting as presenting different variations on a theme.
SC: Louise? What did you think when Misha approached you about the collaboration?
LS: I was delighted!
I’ve admired Misha’s talent since I read his series ‘The Book of Doors.’ I looked him up on Twitter and followed him, then followed him on Facebook, and read every story of his I could find. They’re brilliant. One of my favourite stories of his is, ‘The Happiest Place on Earth.’ Another is ‘In the Gloaming O My Darling.’ He’s one of my favourite writers, along with Heinlein, Phillip K. Dick, and Elmore Leonard. Never disappointed.
I hope that readers see this too and are happy with ‘Duel Visions.’