Spotlighting One of Our Younger Members, Zoe Smith-Holladay

It is our pleasure to introduce Zoe Smith-Holladay, a 12 year-old creative writing major at the Denver School of the Arts and a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Zoe is founder & author of kidsanimalstation.com, an animal blog that she started when she was eight. In Spring 2016, Smith-Holladay’s first fictional piece of prose “No Man’s Land” was published in literary magazine Calling Upon Calliope. Her second published work, “Ode to James Baldwin,” appeared in African Voices, http://africanvoices.com/avblog/ode-to-james-baldwin/

Her favorite genres to read and write are historical fiction, comedy, and fantasy. When she grows up, she wants to be a geneticist and would like to find a way to combine her passion for creative writing and science.

The following book review was published on her blog on January 15, 2017. We are reprinting it here with Zoe's and her mother's permission.

Writing Monsters By Philip Athans
Book Reviewed by Zoe Smith-Holladay

Recently, I read a book called Writing Monsters: How to Craft Believably Terrifying Creatures to Enhance Your Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction by Philip Athans, a head-to-toe guide on how to write monsters and creatures in stories. As a lot of my constant readers know, I love to write, and it ended up being a very helpful book for the novel I’m working on. Everyone can think of at least one monster from classic fiction; creatures such as Frankenstein and zombies come to mind. Many writers have tried (and failed) to create the next great, popular monster, and this is a helpful guide to do exactly that. In this review, I’ll go into more detail, telling you things this book is good for, and some things you will learn about without spoiling it completely. You may be wondering what this has to do with animals, but what is and what isn’t a monster is in the eye of the beholder, just ask all those who read Cujo by Stephen King.

Useful Structural Features

There are a few features of this book that make it particularly appealing to anyone trying to create a good monster. For one, it had a ‘monster creation form’ at the front of it, that you can fill out as you go. This monster creation form is helpful for thinking about your own monster, and can answer some really difficult questions, or raise some that you hadn’t even thought of. I was having immense trouble creating my monster until I filled out this form. Another feature is that it has examples of monster creations from writers such as Frank Herbert and H.P. Lovecraft. “Learn from the best,” that’s what they say, and, in this book, you can do just that! Writing Monsters also has little side features about things such as monster archetypes, like the werewolf and the alien, and blurbs about monsters that exist in real life, like sharks. These features make the book more entertaining and thought-provoking for the reader.

Unique Perspective

This book also offers up a very interesting perspective. While it is indeed a non-fiction book about how to write, it isn’t all just writing facts, it also talks about what monsters and their creation really mean, and where, in our minds, monsters actually come from. There are a lot of spots in the book that will make you ponder about your monster and what it says about not only humanity, but you yourself. It’s funny to think about how some of our most well-known monsters reflect on humanity, not only in the story itself, but in real life. For example, I never thought about how Zombie books are more about the people and their response to them than it is about the Zombies themselves (although eating brains is pretty gnarly). Another example of monster movies saying something about humanity is the fact that there are lots of monster books and movies with monsters that are actually human, such as The Shining and Friday the 13th (not that I’ve seen any of those movies).

I’m sure you’ve noticed that we’re going old school with the photos.

Thought-Provoking Questions

Throughout the book, you are constantly bombarded with questions about what your creature is, what motivates them, and their abilities. It’s really thought provoking for a budding author to read because it makes you question what you are writing about. Some parts of the book tackle subjects that you may have not even thought about in your writing. For example, it helped me realize what my monster symbolized for my main character. (no spoilers, you are gonna have to read my book!) As expected, there are some parts that are run-of-the-mill writing advice classics, such as “show don’t tell”, and “use all the senses,” but, in the end, you come away with lots of new insights. In addition, the insights are not only about your characters and the monsters themselves, but what you want them to be, and what you want them to reflect about your story. You also get to think about what you want your readers to feel when they read your book — whether you want it to capture the specific reader’s darkest fears, or something broader that everyone can relate to being afraid of.

All in all, this is an excellent read, not only for entertainment, but if you’re searching for a good how-to guide for writing about monsters. If you want a link to buy the book, here’s that: Writing Monsters on Amazon. I haven’t been able to find any book like it. It is surely a good book, overall.

Zoe's review was originally published on Kids Animal Station blog and you can find it HERE. To follow Zoe's writing accomplishments, visit her blog regularly and follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Details, Details

Go find a copy of Lucia Berlin’s short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women.

Find “Point of View” within.

(Actually, okay, read the whole book or maybe one short story a week for as long as it takes. The title story is a masterpiece of humor and narration.)

But “Point of View” is a short story about writing, empathy, perspective, and the use of detail.

It’s like Lucia Berlin saying, "hey, here’s how it’s done."

“Point of View” has many layers to it and is a bit of genius, I would suggest, because of how effortlessly Lucia Berlin makes her point. It’s a short story in which nothing happens. The point of view is a writer. I don’t think we believe the narrator is Lucia Berlin herself. Might be, might not. The writer is writing about a woman named Henrietta and nothing much happens to Henrietta, either.

Joyce Carol Oates (New York Journal of Books, March 2016) has called “Point of View” Berlin’s “most complexly imagined short story.”

But “Point of View” is also a short story that is a note to writers about the power of detail. In fact, the main character comes right out and says that her story about Henrietta would be quite boring on the page but with the use of “intricate detail” she will “make this woman so believable you can’t help but feel for her.”

From “Point of View:”

“Most writers use props and scenery from their own lives. For example, my Henrietta eats her meager little dinner every night on a blue place mat, using exquisite heavy Italian stainless cutlery. An odd detail, inconsistent, it may seem, with this woman who cuts out coupons for Brawny towels, but it engages the reader’s curiosity. At least, I hope it will.”

The first-person “writer” of the story goes on to give examples of the details she uses from “her” life (the narrator) to bring her character, Henrietta, to life.

There’s a tug to these details. We care because the writer cares about Henrietta, has given her three dimensions through details and then slips into her point of view with attitude about her surroundings, too (even when she’s doing almost nothing).

“She lies in bed, sipping Sleepytime tea. She wishes she had her old electric blanket with the switch Lo-Med-Hot. The new blanket was advertised as the Intelligent Electric Blanket. The blanket knows it isn’t cold so it doesn’t get hot. She wishes it would get hot, comforting. It’s too smart for its own good! She laughs out loud. The sound is startling in the little room.”

You can almost feel Lucia Berlin breathing life into the story.

Through detail.

No brilliant new point here. There’s nothing you don’t already know, that the little objects and colors and stuff of your story add up, that your characters are reacting to the objects and colors and stuff of their lives all the time, that bringing the world of your characters to life will, in turn, deliver your character to your readers.

Reading Lucia Berlin will give you a jolt of inspiration. Your own life has ample material from which to draw, as “Point of View” suggests. All of Berlin’s story are quasi-autobiographical. Some, apparently, not so quasi. The detail is right there around us every day. We just have to see it. And write it down.

A full review of A Manual for Cleaning Women is here.

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Details? On a side note (and very much related), the late Gary Reilly’s The Detachment was #2 on a list by Westword's Alan Prendergast for holiday gift suggestions among local writers. The novel is 154,000 words long. It is, if you read it, 154,000 words of documentary-level detail turned into a brilliant narrative piece of fiction.

Here’s what Prendergast wrote. Note the last two words.

2. The Detachment, Gary Reilly
Veterans who enjoy fact-based military fiction should take to Gary Reilly’s The Detachment (Running Meter Press), the second installment of his Vietnam-era novels featuring Private Palmer. Published posthumously last winter, the book is reminiscent of James Jones’s work—a look at the tedium and gut-checking that plagues an MP who, while not part of the frontline troops, still feels keenly the absurdity and madness of an unwinnable war. We’ve written about Reilly’s semi-comic “Asphalt Warrior” series of novels about a Denver cabbie, but the Vietnam work is of a different order: sober, poignant and harrowingly detailed.

Crossing Colfax: A Story by Story Review

By Mark Stevens

crossingcolfaxShort-story anthologies can be tricky affairs. Collecting short stories in one volume from multiple authors can end in a patchwork mess. Not the case with Crossing Colfax, a sweeping collection of writing from the ranks of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. The only rule was that each story had to touch on Colfax Avenue—a long, heavily stop-lighted street that runs east-west across Metro Denver. Not surprisingly, most of the stories take place in the grittier sections of the city itself in the dark (and frequently paranormal) shadows. Surprising to me, these stories offer consistently high quality of prose and story-telling. There is a solid composure to the entire volume.

Herewith a brief recap and review of each story, a sort-of “consumer guide” to would-be readers. A caution that I don’t read much paranormal stuff and this collection includes a healthy sample from that genre. And one final note: kudos to the editors. In a project that involved a team of editors and coordinators, I didn’t find one typo in the 370 pages. Putting out high-quality books (dig the snazzy cover, too) through a self-publishing model is a matter of standards and commitment. Good work, Nikki Baird and the whole team.

The stories:

In Angie Hodapp’s “Seven Seconds,” auto mechanic Billy Shump possesses a common superpower. But it comes with limitations. He has the ability to turn back time. But only for, well, see the title of the story. That is, for not very long. It’s useful, but how much? Billy has his eyes on the alluring Kyra, a picture of female “poetry.” Billy gets a chance to save the day, but at what cost? Tricky bargains force Billy to a dangerous crossroads. The old cliché is “only time will tell.” Not only does time tell, it turns out, it takes care of everything. A clever idea and a well-written appetizer for this anthology.

You’ll learn a lot about farm equipment in “Hay Hook,” right down to branding irons and cattle prods. A genteel start to Margaret Mizushima’s story—a veterinarian checking a horse with digestive issues—turns Ugly with a capital “U.” Diamonds are not a horse’s best friend. I liked this story’s jolt from pastoral setting to tense crime drama.

Thea Hutcheson’s highly atmospheric “A Full Moon Over a Desperate Plain” begins with this gritty image: “The air on Colfax Avenue roils with the thick smell of sweet half-burnt gas coming off the finned behemoths rolling along this asphalt river.” Our first-person narrator Mike is a man with no dreams and the keen ability to sense the hopes and dreams in others. “No one ever notices that I’m more—or less—than they are, never know the hunger that pushes me into their company.” He is searching for connections and has an eye on Jenny, a waitress at a diner. Think nobody notices you, Mike? Maybe, maybe not. The sun just might rise one of these days.

We’re in the future in “Crossing the Uncanny Valley,” Martha Husain’s gripping sci-fi yarn that starts in a shuttle careening over western Kansas that soon crashes near Colfax Ave. in Denver. Or what’s left of Denver. But the Mile High City is now rubble. The earth is blackened. “Not a soul” alive. The band of survivors fear the “Mechs,” the artificial intelligence machines that have declared war on the human race. The shuttle crash takes one life and our narrator, Kaleb, sets out with horny Hutch and Gothic Punk Jo to find a way to get to a safe colony at Cheyenne Mountain, sixty miles away. An encounter with an in-stasis cyborg named Corinna could be the answer—or mean all kinds of danger. Corinna can answer certain human needs, but may have her own agenda. You better know the difference between your zombies and your cyborgs, that’s for sure. By the end, you’ll be eager to find out what happens on the road trip for the two who are still standing when this rollicking story ends.

Kate Lansing’s “Colfax, PI” features a Jewish vampire with a problem. His thirst for blood “makes it impossible to keep kosher.” His personal assistant, Lilah, needs help. Lilah’s sister has been murdered. It may be a case of tainted heroin and a vampire’s finely tuned sense of the way blood should taste certainly comes in handy. When push comes to shove, Colfax has the fangs to get his way. A fun twist on a familiar paranormal trope.

Zoltan James shades "The Man in the Corner" in noir. It’s got a cool, Chandleresque vibe. But a blizzard is blowing in and things are going to get even colder in the "sticky one-roomer" that is the watering hole called Dominic's. All eyes on the bartendress, Beatrix. She can "out-tough any bitch or bastard who walks through her door." Our narrator is a private eye with a patch over one eye. He's an ex-L.A. SWAT guy, too, and has a thing for "Trixie." There's an odd stranger and then a cop takes a stool. It seems Beatrix knows a thing or two about some missing money and soon the bullets fly. Blood splatters "like an abstract drip painting." Old habits do indeed die hard. Zoltan James turns up the heat even on the coldest killers.

“Blurg,” “Meh,” and “Snarf” are the first three words we hear Mable say in the ultra-brief short story “Allyah” by Rebecca Rowley. (You could read this one between sips of coffee.) Mable has just woken up from a weird dream about giving birth. She has an unusual job and the story is so brisk and efficient I don’t want to give too much away. Mable likes her clients to follow directions. She also likes specificity. Payments for her services are received via wire transfer to an account in the Cayman Islands. Well, Mable’s not her real name. Probably not a good idea in this line of work. This is a short story that asks a ton of questions and answers them in a few quick brush strokes—and detailed touches—at the end.

In “The Case of the Woman Who Sewed Her Silence,” B.K. Winstead introduces us to two Denver detectives on the hunt for a missing baby. They don’t have much to go on. A woman is found in a coin-op laundry in the processing of attempting to stitch her lips together (if you don’t believe that’s a possibility, you haven’t spent much time on Colfax Ave.) She’d previously been seen with the baby but now the baby is missing. The story weaves in some thoughtful takes on faith. You could almost envision a whole novel or a television series featuring the contrasting views of Detectives Davis and Diaz. Prayer, after all, “is not a gumball machine where every time you put in a coin, you get a prize.” There’s fine contrast and good banter between these two cops, a bit reminiscent of the nihilistic chatter in “True Detective.”

That kitschy cheesy “Mexican” restaurant Casa Bonita is the springboard of inspiration or Zach Milan’s “Stolen Legacy,” a tale of magic, missing children and professional redemption. Viktor goes from suspect to crime solver. He’s good at understanding misdirection and knows what to watch for behind the velvet curtain.

L.D. Silver’s “That’s Love, Baby” introduces us to a hooker whose life “has crumbled.” She has special healing powers and she hears a voice she’s named “Colfax.” A trap is waiting that might end her days plying her special trade or might provide a chance to escape. It might all come down to the voices inside her head. Like many good short stories, Silver leaves behind a few nifty puzzles for readers to ponder.

“Colfax Kitsune,” by Emily Singer, is a semi-steamy paranormal tale that places a Trickster from the Flipside trying to find her way through modern Denver. Yuri isn’t comfortable completing missions alone and would much prefer to have the company of Piccolo, who has ditched her, briefly, for a tramp. Yuri’s sense of smell and sound are, in a word, extraordinary. A stray miniature sphinx has slipped through a hole in the wall between Earth and the Flipside and Piccolo and Yuri must send it home “before its magic starts acting up.” Despite the terror in her veins, Yuri knows she can’t fail again. The hole is closing, the edges “curling in on itself like a burning piece of paper.” Time is running short. Over a coffee at Starbucks, it’s Yuri who will deliver one last message.

Autumn Leaves is the owner of Tea Leaves, a teahouse that sits next to a pot shop on Colfax Avenue in Laura Kjosen’s “Phantom brew.” Yes, Autumn Leaves is her legal name, as she tells the cops when they come around to investigate after the pot shop is ransacked. The story slips gently into poltergeist territory as Autumn works to conjure the ghost of Jack Kerouac with assistance from an acquaintance at a paranormal investigation society. Teapots fly and screams come in full Latin as this wild tale wraps up.

In “Take me to Your Leader, Jackie Smack,” Warren Hammond gives us a brisk and funny story featuring a pair of alley-crawling bums, Jackie and Darrell. Darrell tells Jackie that aliens come for him “every Tuesday,” an event that Jackie yearns to witness. Hearing Darrell’s stories, Jackie considers himself lucky to have found this particular alley and decides on the spot that smack and aliens go well together like “nachos and cherry Slurpees.” If given the opportunity to meet the aliens, he thinks, “he’d jump up to shake hands and say, “How’s it hangin’?” (A great line straight out of an early Seth Rogen flick.) This is sharply-told tale of delusion (and relative grandeur) with a back-to-reality twist ending.

Drugs also play a bit role in T.J. Valour’s “Ghostly Attraction, featuring Dina “who has been dealing with ghosts and their manifestations since she was five.” Dina considers herself “the most abstinent personal escort in history” though she’ll do whatever it takes to keep the customers satisfied. One customer is a full-blown sitophilic (yes, I had to consult Wikipedia). Now a ghost is trying to take over her entire being and she’s seeing utterly creepy sights, like the maggots dripping out of her cop friend’s mouth. Dina blames the hit of smack for intensifying the hallucinations. Dark shapes are following her. “They clung to the shadows of the parking lot across from the police station, absorbing the meager light radiating from the street lamps.” The story shifts points of view with a smooth, confident style in an edgy paranormal tale that deftly weaves together romance, unusual forms of lust and themes of professional and personal jealousy.

“Charlie’s Point of View,” by Linda Berry, wraps up the collection with fanciful story told from the point of view of the life-sized fiberglass and plaster sculpture that is seen to this day at the Tattered Cover bookstore on Colfax Ave. Charlie, with his highly realistic gaze focused squarely on the newspaper in his grip, observes more than you’d think. A couple of bag ladies “get into a situation” out on the street. As Charlie notes, the store isn’t on the worst stretch of Colfax, “but you still need to be alert for trouble.” Not everything—or everybody—is what it appears to be. What’s real? What’s not? Charlie knows he’s got the best seat in the house. Maybe the whole city.

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Mark StevensMark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.

Book three in the series, Trapline, was published by Midnight Ink in November 2014

The War of Art by Steven Pressfield: A Review

Review by Mark Stevens

the-war-of-art_for Mark Stevens postResistance is invisible, internal, implacable, impersonal, infallible and insidious.

Resistance, as Steven Pressfield points out in The War of Art, never sleeps.

“Henry Fonda was still throwing up before each stage performance, even when he was seventy-five,” writes Pressfield. “In other words, fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.”

If you don’t know it, The War of Art is a must-read. (Of course, reading it might be an act of resistance in itself. You should be writing, don’t you know.)

The War of Art breaks down the interaction with your art. It encourages you to picture yourself as a soldier in the fight against, what else? Resistance.

Pressfield first defines the enemy (resistance), then encourages you to fight by “turning pro” and finally, in the third section, he shows you how to find inspiration in the “higher realm.”

The battle, Pressfield asserts, involves dedication and daily action. Some of his arguments have too many biblical metaphors for my tastes but the essence of his argument is hard to refute: get busy, show up, do the work, stick to it, make it routine, make it a habit, don’t give in.

You will understand the creative process a bit better—and even understand why you feel compelled to tell stories and to produce art.

• “The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome.”

• “When we sit down day after day and keep grinding, something mysterious starts to happen. A process is set in motion by which, inevitably, and infallibly heaven comes to our aid. Unseen forces enlist in our cause; serendipity reinforces our purpose.”

• “What I call Professionalism someone else might call the Artist’s Code or the Warrior’s Way. It’s an attitude of egolessness and service.”

Pressfield’s most convincing point, at least to me, is that if we have something to say, we are obligated to say it.

We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the world. He calls creating art a private insurrection.

“As artists and professionals it is our obligation to enact our own internal revolution, a private insurrection inside our own skulls. In this uprising we free ourselves from the tyranny of consumer culture. We overthrow the programming of advertising, movies, video games, magazines, TV and MTV by which we have been hypnotized from the cradle. We unplug ourselves from the grid by recognizing that we will never cure our restlessness by contributing our disposable income to the bottom line of Bullshit, Inc., but only by doing our work.”

The War of Art delivers a blow against resistance and will get you fired up. It’s a battle out there. Strike a blow, if you can, every day.

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Mark Stevens
Mark Stevens is the monthly programs coordinator for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers and the author of the Western hunting guide Allison Coil mysteries Antler Dust and Buried by the Roan.
Book three in the series, Trapline, will be published by Midnight Ink in November 2014