The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

The Addictive Appeal of Southern Gothic

One of the first short stories I remember falling in love with was A Rose for Emily by William Faulkner. There were countless things that fascinated me from the narrator seemingly being the town itself to the descriptions of old southern decay. As a woman who grew up in the south, right as economic downturns and outsourcing devastated the textile industry the aesthetic of southern gothic had an intrinsic appeal to me.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

There are some genres you can’t help, but fall in love with from the time you are young. For some people this happens with fantasy or romance, and often it can happen again as you grow older. Certain genres have always had an appeal for, but  southern gothic and southern based literature always finds it way back into my life with vengeance, leaving my kindle full and my bookshelf ready to explode. In short, the southern gothic genre is Addictive, but I’m not the only one who feels this way. Despite the genre often being left out of everyday conversation it manifests in some of the most remembered cultural icons of our era, even as it goes unrecognized.

Southern Gothic is a classic and often under appreciated genre with infinite possibilities in text and on screen. When it shows up it shows out, whether through Beyonce’s Formation video, or stirring controversy through The Beguiled. As a little girl, I caught a few glimpses of the movie Beloved based on the novel by Toni Morrison (amazon link below) and ,though I utterly forgot I’d seen that movie until one day I saw it on the screen, imagery of it remained in my mind. A house full of ribbons. A daughter trying to save her mother from the burdens of guilt and the history of southern slaves and freedom. A woman, nude and screaming in giggling unnatural tongue before a prayer circle. The images stuck with me as fascinating concepts for years to come even as they faded to the back of my memory.

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Fall of The House of Uscher, a great example.

The south, post-civil war, is a place where hairstyles are always twenty years behind; where rocking chairs to over look your property are sources of pride passed down through generations; where tradition and culture is complex and divided; Where people prefer to say southern history is embodied by confederates while other southerners l(ike myself) look on and know they’re much more embodied by the slaves; where people watch meth ravaged communities scream “the south will rise again” while others try to move forward; where kids can run around the neighborhood alone and often find their friend’s door unlocked and fresh brownies waiting for whomever arrive.

The south is welcome and warning; it is where long standing tradition meets long standing decay. Where the past is present, and the present is always past.

This is why I love to write it, and why I’m currently finishing a six chapter short story called The Hell I Burn Through in the genre. Mind and Frost, turned out to be a bigger project, and I’m letting an associate go through it as we speak, but in the mean time I need something to work on when not finishing up Five Days with the Stranger, so I began to ponder something to write about in-between chapters of Five days rewrites. Suddenly, a vista of pine and river came to my vision, old houses with cared for porches, children playing beneath old water towers in the summer heat, and the streets of my own childhood cast in the intense pallor of Southern Gothic filled my vision. I opened a word document and wrote a six page outline for a novelette. Within the day I had 6,000 words written, characters who I completely fell in love with.  It feels like coming home.

And yet my relationship to the southern is complicated. Perhaps this is why I love the genre in the first place.

Gone with the wind

If you were born below the Mason-Dixon it can be hard not to romanticize the south. Gone with the Wind is a racist nightmare to many modern day black folk, but even still it has a glorious and sweeping appeal. There’s something wonderfully addictive about the south’s attitude of genteel welcome. By that same measure there is something wonderfully addictive about the south’s decay. The hypocrisy of that southern style kindness v.s normalized prejudices is part of why To Kill a Mocking Bird has lasted in the public mind. As a black southern woman, I experienced southern fried racism from a young age. No one ever called me the n-word, but there were times I was followed in stores, witnessed my incredibly intelligent parents being patronized, had visited restaurants with my friends families only for us to be stared at and glared at the whole time we were there because I was there. There were things I did not understand, but came to understand as I grew older and realized “Oh that wasn’t just weird people. That damn near a whole restaurant full of old white folk and their families who don’t like that I ate there, and didn’t understand why I was with that nice white family“. The darkness of the south wasn’t something I could ignore, and it wasn’t something my parents hid from me either. Some of the nicest, well-mannered, and polite people you will ever meet are old fashioned southern racists. Unlike the north –where racism is often excused as “at least we’re not them”(them being the south)– the south continues to have a lot of normalized bigotry and ignorance that contributes to that darkness. Knowing this, despite my love of Fried Green Tomatoes or Steel Magnolias, the inclusion of decay in southern society rings true to me. The romanticism still exists, but it exists alongside southern shadows I, as a black southerner, can’t escape from. Truthfully I don’t want to.

7f51e86dc6e27c3edf633bef8e3c3c2dNo matter the media the aesthetic of southern gothic is fascinatingly beautiful and distinctly American, whether a story is set in a bayou, the eastern shore, or urban buzz of Atlanta. The swamps of the bayou and foothills of Georgia all have a unique and poignant natural beauty. Fields of collard greens go for as far as the eye can see, creating unique visuals amidst fields of grass green. The physical beauty of approaching a grand old house fascinates us when confronted by the old slave cabins not quite hidden by the trees. We walk down former main streets lined with businesses with faded paint from the 1960s and 1970s, whose owners still maintain the place with pride, knowing if their grandchildren will ever come back to mind the store. Those grandparents leave and drive old pick up trucks and sedans to lovely little houses on quite, safe, streets. They sit on the porch, have a coffee and way at their neighbors as they come home from school. It is both idyllic and decaying.

A decayed and perpetual beauty. In a way the south is an atmospheric vampire; perpetually the south and yet slowly, beneath a beautiful though tarnished surface, filled with unknowns and entropy.

eves20bayou20posterWhen I was eight years old, I first saw the movie Eve’s Bayou, and that movie has stuck with me even when the name left my mind, only to return years later. The imagery of well-to-do southern blacks in their communities, struggling with position without power; with creating the illusion of southern manners against the reality of small town gossip and misunderstandings leaves a permanent impression. That film laid a similar ground work that Toni Morrison did in her novels such as Beloved or The Bluest Eye; exploring the complex and taboo world of the secrets below the Mason Dixon. Those stories, though darker than others, create a space for black diversity in fiction. Wealthy blacks, poor blacks, root workers, pastors, and people just trying to get by create a complex reflection of black history and life through the ages. Eve’s Bayou situates the audience as a little girl about to lose her innocence, with her we learn those secrets and her own strength. In that film, we learn the reality that not everything is as it seems is one of the greatest southern narratives ever told as far as I’m concerned. It’s a change from every novel, person, and genre that assumes “urban” without “fantasy” or “paranormal” attached is inherently the black experience.

Southern gothic is and always will be a genre that feels natural to me. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by recent media, like Resident Evil and True Blood, truly capturing that aesthetic and culture in exciting ways. Video games and HBO? Wow. It’s spreading. But we can always do with more…and bring more attention to the power of this tantalizing genre. Then again I may just be looking for another fix.

How do you feel about the Southern Gothic? Do you read these books often or not at all? Do you prefer movies with the aesthetic? And isn’t Formation a perfect video?
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Recommended Reads!

6 Elements of Southern Gothic, an excellent post breaking the southern gothic down!

The Evolution Of Southern Gothic

Lit Reactor’s Southern Gothic Primer, must reads for the genre

My Favs?

Kindred by the phenomenal Octavia Butler, check her out (rereading atm)

The Bluest Eye and Beloved by Toni Morrison, one of the best author’s in the genre

Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a personal favorite.  Tennessee Williams captures the genre in so many plays.

 

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Short Story Collections:

Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South

Southern Gothic Shorts

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eBooks aren’t a Get Rich Quick Scheme.

As some of you may know, I have been publishing for over a year (under a pen name) and in that time I have done better than most authors without 100+ page books or an editor. Even the reviews that comment on my editing have been more than kind about the stories themselves. So far I’ve made $60-$100 with no real advertising and just using my other(more popular) blog. It isn’t much, but let me tell you it is better than most indie authors out there who have just gotten started with putting in exactly $0.

And I am happy with this because after a year of lurking, and preparing books/short stories for release under my name I have learned one solid fact…self-publishing eBooks is not a money making scheme. Data Guy of the Author Earnings Report had an interview with  the Science Fiction & Fantasy Marketing Podcast in Feb. 2016 that broke down the difficulties and successes of the market brilliantly. One comment he made really stuck out to me, however, because he recounted how the media seemed totally uninterested in the AER’s discovery that a large number of authors were getting by fine with their writing. They weren’t making millions, but they weren’t making cents. The stories people were interested in, and the stories I kept/keep finding when I first began researching self-publishing were the million dollar success stories or the failure stories.

These people had one thing in common…they couldn’t possibly be the majority of self-published authors. There’s two groups in those who “fail” at self-publishing. The 1st of those who claimed to fail? They’d written books purely to get rich off a market, usually erotica or romance. They rushed a book, published it, and though any schmo would buy it because why wouldn’t they? They didn’t have a real long term plan. They were hopeful or desperate in a way most of us have been in our lives. But they had no heart in their book and sometimes no respect for their genre or audience. They listened to the people whose only advice was “write a thing. Hit publish.”.

Elsewhere the successful indies all have a variety of stories, and the most authentic were often the most unique and inexplicable. Their situations were happenstance. The right person read, word of mouth, and they struck at the right moment. There is talent involved, but the reality is plenty of talented people in this world don’t get a damn lick of attention of praise. Remember Van Goph was pretty much only known by other artists until Johanna Van Goph, his sister-in-law, refused to let his work be forgotten after his suicide. These people are not common and their books might not even be that well written (which is fine the goal is for people to enjoy them)

While every other no name blogger may include “write an ebook” as an easy way to make passive income the truth is nothing about ebook sales or writing is easy. The truth is most of those bloggers began with a large audience they could sell to, and that’s why they made what money they did. Book quality aside they had buyers before they thought of a book. More seedy individuals have turned kindle, kobo, and smashwords into a means to get you to give them money. These individuals may have written a handful of actual books, but their main skill is marketing. While they can have very useful advice attached to that advice is convincing people that ebook sales are easy. You will look at their backlogs on their blogs, on amazon, or their websites only to see how they’ve made their money is convincing people like you to buy their book, course, etc. Every blue moon you will find someone like Mark Dawson who actually walks the walk, and loves the craft of writing. One thing that differentiates him and others like him from the former? They will tell you how to do better, write more, and become a better marketer for your writing. They don’t promise you instant sales. They don’t belittle legitimate ebook authors. They will tell you this can be fullfilling, but full of hard work. That said there’s something about people, even Dawson who I’ve interacted with and who is a nice man, whose fortunes are spent on marketing you techniques perhaps more than their actual writing.

If you notice I didn’t mention the other half of those who feel they “failed“. The reason is the second group is far more common, and unfortunately is the majority of us self-publishers. For the rest of us authors, both successful and not, the trouble is we’re all trying to get noticed. With hundreds of books being released every month every author is tasked with the torturous task of pimping themselves, and we don’t even get a pimp cup for it. The sad thing is here is where a lot of authors struggle. Those with the mean green to buy $300 worth of facebook ads or use ad services have an upper hand over those of us who simply can’t. This is a tremendous problem for black authors who traditionally face both prejudiced gate keeping, the racist belief that black books have no value for black people, and who don’t always have the social or economic capital to spend $300 or make that $300 really turn into sales.

A bit of advice, the best way to spend $300 is to find an editor and someone who knows how to put together the cover you want. I’m cheap, artistically inclined, and honestly hate 90% of covers in the genres I write in. So I make my own covers. However, I am preparing to send my proper novels to an editor once they’re complete and I find one who understands my work. My 99c story, Mind and Frost, will be self edited, and released in the next three weeks or so because I just don’t see the benefit in paying for the short story with experimental tense use. But perhaps I’m dumb as rocks because those who receive any sort of help on book production see a spike of around 34% in sales.

Despite that we can work our buts off instead, really making constant mistakes and correcting in order to find the best marketing tactics for our audience. We just have to market differently, be more aggressive, and more clever. It’s not that simple by far, but that’s the long and short of it.

Book marketing, book writing, and taking the time to create your brand isn’t something you can just throw together. Story after story after story gets published about authors who break the bank only because they’re extremes. Humans like extremes because they make for eye catching stories. The reality is most self-published authors don’t quit their day job unless their partner has a stable job or, I suspect, they come from money. The reality is most self-published authors of any quality with a good cover sell, based on observations over the last year, about 20-50 copies on average depending on the genre, and supposedly make under $500. But that’s money you didn’t have before, and money that if you hit critical mass (let’s say 3+ books in a series/world)  you can make twice over that, take what you’ve made, and reinvest in your passion.

But you will not get rich quick.

Instead focus on getting your book done in a way you will be happy with.
That’s the first step to making your life richer.

One of those articles I sort of trash has some good advice.

Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

Reblog: How NOT to start your novel

This is the classic trap most new writers fall into. I know I did. We get into storyteller mode: “once upon a time, in a kingdom far, far away, there was a____ who for many years….”

Great for fairy tales. Not so much for modern novels. In a contemporary novel the reader wants to be in the story, not outside telling or hearing about it.

If this is sci-fi or fantasy, your job is tougher, because you have world-building to do, and there’s going to be a huge amount of history to get across. But you don’t have to do it on page one. Slip in the world-building on a “need-to-know” basis.

Damn this article is both hilarious and thought provoking as a writer. No matter the genre some of these themes bring me back to my high school composition class, but many crop up again and again despite writer experience. This article captures both why they don’t work and is a damn funny take on the omnipresence of Disney princess sheets. Take a look over at:

Anne R. Allen’s Blog: How NOT to start your novel

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Whose Genre is this Anyway?

Genres are probably the most useful and arbitrarily frustrating aspects of books, films, movies, podcasts, art, or anything you could possibly make creatively. No creator really wants to think about where their products will go. Most of us just want to create and put something we love out into the world. Yet we all know the frustration of the customer, searching and searching through the weeds for the product they want to spend money on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “Why can’t I find that kindle category. It was there yesterday and I wanted to find more books there! Damn you Amazon!” While Amazon, Kobo, and other search engines are constantly tinkering algorithms and site design unless something hits all the standards of a genre we can struggle to find it.

Example? I love romance in my fantasy and I love romance in general AND I love fantasy in general. If I want to find a book where the romance is a central, but not the central aspect of the plot in a unique fantasy world with a plot arising not from the romance, but something else…I have to weed through so many shifter romances and random books. The core of what I want is a fantasy book with a strong romantic through line. In fantasy I can click romance or non-romance, but both rarely find me what I want.

The books I’ve found? Generally came from fantasy sections, but outside of Kushiel’s Dart most were still buried.  This is most evident in ebook stores, but its always been a problem. As a self-published author, I have struggled with classifying my stories. However, my erotica/romances are relatively easy to categorize once I figured out how most readers did. The problem with Science Fiction or Fantasy is they’re loaded with useful sub-genres and then you have Science Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, Contemporary Science Fiction, Space Opera, Magical realism, etc. etc. When a story crosses genres you’re pretty much left saying a hail Mary and hoping things work out.

So how do you find books you like? Fellow authors, how do you classify your books so people  can find them, and know what they’re getting?

How to Settle in for Writing Fiction?

How to Settle in for Writing Fiction?
  1. Create a playlist that suits your story. I use youtube and soundcloud to create unique and fun sounds from contemporary, classical, and indie artists all over the world.
  2. Give yourself 15 minutes to fool aorund on your phone
  3. Put your phone down
  4. Open your writing program or grab your favorite pen and paper
  5.  Prepare both a large mug of hot and soothing tea, and have a chilled bottle of water(large) for after the tea is consumed. Good teas? For a racing mind I drink chamomile. For a chill day spearmint or peppermint. However I am down for chai tea at any hour of any given day.
  6. Have a pack of snacks that go with tea, preferably cookies/biscuits…preferably chocolate chip.
  7. Turn off your wifi, unplug your Ethernet, toss cord out of reach.
  8. Put your phone down.. Didn’t I tell you to put your phone down.
  9. Put playlist at low to medium volume.
  10. Sip your tea
  11. Write
  12. For every 200-300 words eat a cookie/biscuit, and feel rewarded and accomplished.
  13. At 1200 words reward yourself with a 15 minute break,
  14. Get back to the joys of writing
  15. Repeat every day or until writing is finished.

There is my foolproof guide to writing with a motivator(the sweets reward), something soothing, and without distraction!

Stand Alone Books V.S Series

Stand Alone Books V.S Series

Should you write a stand alone book or abandon it for a series? This question is one many fiction writers in all genres must have because out of the 15-30 writing groups I am part of this question has been asked in each one, and is asked again every few months.  The struggle between what authors envision both in their product and what everyone says works is a constant struggle. It’s a fascinating question, in part because I think it induces flailing panic and anxiety in authors who want to make a supplemental income or reach large swaths of people with their books. Like people constantly arguing between whether to book more or blog less; what keywords to use and how; whether to make your own cover; the answers are many and varied…but generally concede to the supremacy of series. Repeatedly this question ends with “Maybe your solo book can do alright?” or a treatise on why series should come before all else.

flailing arms
“But I only want to write a stand alone! MY DREAMS ARE RUINED.”

So often those questions have a dozen responses like “Is there anyway you can make your standalone a series? If it’s a long book you could cut it in two, or you could put it aside and work on a 10 book series for now”. In fact  I just read a comment that went straight to the point “Find a way to make it a series.Find a way to make them a series, even loosely. A character is friends or related to someone in the other book. Or they work for the same agency. Live in the same town.” None of this is bad advice…but there is something inherently cheapening in forcing series and sometimes it can leave the author feeling dishonest. Not because series are inherently bad because their story is a one and done. It ends where it should end and is structured how it should be structured. Why should they be penalized for that?  For a lot of authors who prefer to write stand alone fiction that leaves them high and dry with a distinct feeling their books won’t sell.

There’s one other question I rarely see people ask does a series do more to disappoint than entice as is suggested in this awesome post by Bionic Bookworm? Could it be we’re all so trained by movies, video games, comics, and books to have inferior or less enjoyable sequels that we don’t really comment on them? Is a series really always better then simply telling your story even if it is just one novel or novella? I don’t think so, but I want to share some of my thoughts of the topic with you.

You should write what you desire to write first. If there isn’t a feeling you care about your work chances are it will become clear to the reader. Nothing matters more than infusing the excitement you feel for your work into your work for your intended audience. Failing to do that can kill your book before it gets off the ground. With a series it could also be taken as somewhat of an insult, a waste of your readers time; and if a lot of your readers are also authors then it may come across as a pointless money grab because they know the game. Write what you love with purpose and it makes a difference

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Yes, my brother and I had all the Childcraft books, and to be honest I have still read the fairy tale one because it’s such a fun and beautifully rendered nostalgia trip.

A series at its core is a commitment of love through trial and tribulation. After all what is a series other than something you should want to write  enough to stick with it, and expound upon? Writing a series can be a great opportunity to explore both how to market and more importantly all the elements of the world you’re building through your writing.

 

The best part about a series is the sheer number of possibilities to explore. The comment I just read and shared with you has a very good point about how to blur the lines of stand alone and series to benefit both you and your audience. You may decide to end one story in one of your worlds, but then open another. They are stand alone and still part of a series. If you’ve built this rich and luscious world, why not keep it? Why not travel through it again and bring people on a tour of something you didn’t explore in your first book? Share your love with them. That way you have the best of both worlds. However, if the idea of having to explore those possibilities seems daunting and more of a burden perhaps that is not the bast path for you to take right now. In terms of finding ideas for sequels there was an article shared here by A.S Askalon that offers a very thorough technique on how to approach a series(Original: How to explode with ideas for your sequel)

enolaholmesseries1From a more hard lined marketing perspective, as a writer with several pen names in the steamy and erotic romance categories, there is some truth to the fact that a series will usually pick up more readers. People hate leaving worlds and characters, and if you craft the story right people will keep coming back. It’s addictive because it’s familiar and your audience becomes invested in the long term welling being of either characters or world. Sometimes it is simply a matter of readers being curious. Either way you are almost guaranteed to pick up some of the same readers with sequels.

However , stand alone books can sell and do spectacularly well despite taking a bit more work. There are readers, and sometimes I can be one of them, who enjoy reading one collected story. There’s something satisfying about getting a real conclusion and that draws a certain type of reader.

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Stand alone novels all by Nora Roberts before she was a go to name she still wrote stand alones that people went to because of how and what she wrote.

The key is convincing readers to come back to your name through your voice/style, and then them recommending your book to others. That is the struggle of all fiction, but stand alone books have to have a very strong and distinct voice to continue bringing readers to you because more so than with series an author who wants readers to check out her next books has to essentially seduce an audience with a voice and style that brings them back.

 

Once you have conveyed the type of voice you want in your stand alone. You have to truly begin understanding the strengths of your writing and highlight that in the book, and in how you market it. A stand alone has to really hit a home run in what the book does well and selling that appeal on every ad, in every book reading, and in every interaction around the book. In my upcoming short story Mind and Frost, I know the weirdness of the metaphysical is an inherent draw alongside the very odd circumstances of central protagonists, Kenda and Daniella. I sell their world and their place in it hard in my drafted material. It could become a series later if I feel like, but for now I’ve written down the stories strengths as I see them, will submit to beta readers, and will then write down the strengths they see. Stand alones have to be crafted in how they’re sold with a fine hand, and confidence that one is enough.

Series can ride general expectations, or even just the fact that people like to get into series so they have books to read for a while. There’s ultimately less pressure in an odd way, even though as Bionic Bookworm there’s a different type of pressure to stay relevant. Stand alones don’t get a lot of leeway to get things right. For example, I left a very critical review of The Missing Ones by Patricia Gibney on amazon, but I’m still probably gonna read her next book to see if the elements I loved in The Missing Ones are focused on more (and DC Lottie Parker stops being an idiot *grumble grumble*). Because stand alones don’t get that grace period of book one and book two we authors of stand alones have to market our writing abilities. If Mind and Frost’s setting is what people respond to I’m carrying that into Five Days with the Stranger or my next book still in drafting stage No Pressure Here at All. The former is a neo-noir about a former soldier turned killer’s relationship with a waitress, and the latter a 1920s and 1940s fantasy novel focusing on witches. What do they have in common? They have my voice, they have my care, and they have my awesome but not lewd ability to craft amazing sex scenes! People will be chomping at the bit if they like what I, as a writer, do, and if you know what you do well it will be the same for you. It may not happen with the first or second book. Honestly most self-published and indie authors may not get an audience to book 11 or 14, series or no, but if you put your best foot forward, show off those sexy gams, and do a spin? People will see you and people will find you.

Stand alone books can sell just as much as series. We just have to take the time to put in a lot of work, and a lot of care, because we’re competing against 13 book series, which gives that authors 13 chances to be noticed just through Amazon or Nook searches. So when you write, know what you do and don’t be afraid. You’ll never know until you try, and if you’re introspective as you try your hardest you will hit your stride. I firmly believe that and believe in you.

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All of these are very successful stand alones. You can be like these authors.

Here are some lists of well loved stand alone books and best selling stand alones:

Did I hit the nail on the head? Did I miss something? Do you think I’m totally off the mark? Well, let’s chat! Hit up the comments section