Guest Post – Writing Without Fear

Ashley Holzmann is a horror author by trade and a generally cool person overall. The irony of a horror author writing a post on writing without fear isn’t lost on me, but he makes some excellent points and it’s always great to hear someone tell you to not be afraid of your writing. There are some links at the bottom of the post if you want to find out more about Ash, but without further ado, I’d like to turn the stage over to the amazing Ashley Holzmann.

Hello, my name is Ashley and I will be your guest blogger this evening.

This post is for the writers out there, but will also hopefully interest the readers and other creators alike.

Why is that? Because some of the biggest hindrances to creativity are the self-imposed fears we carry with us.

I’m normally a horror writer, though I dabble in various genres, and I’m going to be putting on my writer hat to tackle this from what I believe to be some interesting perspectives. My goal is to discuss the fears that hold creators back and methods to get beyond those fears.

Creation For The Sake Of Creation

The pure artist, as can be found discussed in great detail in Leo Tolstoy’s What Is Art?, would state that the purer forms of art and creation are performed for the sake of the creation itself.

On some level, they are performed for the sake of the creator, but the more any single creator decides to push their art into the world and display it for others, the less pure it becomes.

I struggle with the purity of this idea.

On many levels, I love the romanticism of it.

The unfortunate counter argument is that it’s terribly convenient to have such an opinion of art for art’s sake, but what of us who were not the creators of War and Peace?

Tolstoy formed many of his important ideas and wrote many of his important essays concerning art after he was already an established personality. This is unfair of me, I know, as the argument is supposed to be separated from the man making the argument, but it’s hard to. Purists are not often in a position of vulnerability

Purists are often not in a position of vulnerability.

What of the artist who is only able to work on their art once a month because of the costs associated with it or the time constraints?

While art may very well be more pure when done for the sake of the creation of it, I would argue that a free artist is one who has enough support to function as an average member of society and concentrate wholly on their creations.

This, too, adds complications to the argument. As famous artists such as Michelangelo were given such freedoms, but were also constrained by the Medici family who paid his bills growing up, and then his commissions throughout his life often being from churches.

Who knows how great Michelangelo’s art could have been if he was given the financial freedom, but also the political and creative freedom to experience his art simply for the sake of it—allowing his mind and hands to take the work where it would go.

Tumbling around these arguments, I find myself settling into a middle ground as an artist, myself.

I create for the sake of creating. Most of my drawings are shared only briefly with family, and sometimes never. My writing is shared as widely as I can get it to be shared, though, and I am actively pursuing that lifestyle.

Maybe it is selfish of me to desire to make enough money off of my creative work to finance my lifestyle and allow me the freedom to leave my day job.

But if the result is more art, then is the world a lesser place?

The interesting aspect of modern times is the self-financed artist. Self-publishing for books, websites like Fiverr that allow for creative people to directly be sourced: the freedoms given to creative people are amazing these days. I sometimes wonder how modern platforms would inform Tolstoy’s opinions, if at all.

All of this brings be back to the title of this section: creation for the sake of creation.

Any artist must start somewhere, and in practicing the craft there will be many works that are never shared. That honing of skill is important, but also something I would argue is so important that it must always be returned to. While I personally believe that artists should strive for freedom in order to actively pursue their art as a career, I also recognize that some art should be kept to ourselves.

That art is both pure, but also important because it teaches us to discern between what we place of ourselves into the world and what we place of ourselves only in those closest to us. Because, at its core, most art is in some way a reflection of ourselves.

Because, at its core, most art is in some way a reflection of ourselves.

When You Are Afraid, Your Art Suffers

The freedom to create anything is not often give to artists. This is not always the choice of an artist, either. I already referenced one of the Renaissance masters. While the great awakening of artistic value occurred during that period, most of the people financing those efforts were the elite. It was not easy to be completely free and still tailor one’s work to the holder of the money purse.

These days we are in may ways more free, but if we are pursuing careers in creation we still have to play to an audience somewhere. This holds back a lot of creators, who feel like they must create to appease the people.

Stroll to the local movie theater and you’ll be given plenty of examples of the fear of creators. Held by by either themselves or by the financiers in order to appeal to as many people with wallets as possible. Being a creator isn’t an easy experience.

Being a creator isn’t an easy experience.

I would argue, however, that it is the artists who fall for this fear that create the lesser versions of the art they hold within them. And while it is financially safer to sometimes tackle the easy victory, the mass market appeal, many artists may surprise themselves when they take the risk to be themselves.

There is a happy medium between the artist who pursues their art in order to achieve financial stability and the artist who wishes to have the funding to be free to express themselves.

The Lack Of Fear

The irony of the fearful artist is that the un-fearful artist is often the one who stampedes through the cliche and lands themselves in the record books.

Every actor who has taken a performance and turned it up to eleven is hailed for their bravery. It is not easy to go through a fight scene completely naked like Viggo Mortensen in Eastern Promises. Or Michael Fassbender in Shame.

Stanley Kurbrick defined most of his career by his lack of fear. He often took so many risks with his work that a large part of his filmmaking experience was ensuring that he had the financing and creating his amazing work on as low a budget as possible. He found a way, though, and he stuck to his artistic guns and remained as pure as he could.

Lolita is another excellent example of a lack of fear. Like Catcher in the Rye, both star a likable, yet unlikeable, unreliable narrator tackling subjects that the writers themselves have stated are not pure to them as creators, but they had a vision and executed it masterfully.

When you work without fear, you are able to work in that middle ground between the extreme of the hermit creator and the opposing side of the sellout.

Pure Art Creation

We can all identify beautiful art. Many of us agree on certain aesthetics, but we will also disagree on many things as well. That’s understandable. What matters when it comes to any form of creation is for the creator to express themselves fully. If an artist is unafraid, then this is the next step they must take: being true to themselves.

This often means that artists true to themselves are exposing some of their inner-most demons to the world. They are allowing themselves to be vulnerable in front of the masses. This is almost always difficult. Crying in front of thousands of people is something that takes training.

Writing about secret childhood experiences can bring back horrible hurtful memories. Exposing one’s character flaws leaves us open to criticism that we may not be fully emotionally prepared for.

Exposing one’s character flaws leaves us open to criticism that we may not be fully emotionally prepared for.

Let Go

The reason we do allow ourselves the freedom of pure expression is because while we do expose ourselves to the voices of critics, we also expose ourselves to inclusion and acceptance.

I’ve often told myself that my friends and family will never read my work. This is not true, but the thought of showing my stuff only to strangers has a freeing quality to the creation.

Another simple tactic to use is to create things you would only want yourself to see. Then leave those things for a time. Come back to them. Refine them. Then either force yourself to release it out into the world, or have a trusted friend or loved one do it for you.

Tell yourself that you have not created such a work. Or use a pseudonym to hide your true identity. Create the double life that is necessary to spread your work. Justify your work to yourself any way that you can.

It is not easy to be true to one’s self, but the more often you are, the more often you open yourself up to surprising revelations. More people may fall in love with your work than you think. More opportunities may open the door for you as an artist because you are known to not have fear.

More people may fall in love with your work than you think.

You may also be surprised to find out that many artists will also look up to you. They may reach out to ask how you were able to be so honest or brave with your work. You may be surprised to find that being true to yourself opens yourself to just as much awe as it does to judgement.

It has been my experience in both creating and in enjoying art that the awe of admiration is more often gifted toward artists than judgement.

-Ashley Franz Holzmann

About The Author

Visit asforclass.com for more from Ashley.

His new book is available on Amazon. Get your copy here.

Ashley Franz Holzmann bio:

A Boy Named Sue, named Ashley, who goes by Ash around his friends. Ashley grew up overseas on Air Force bases. He once bought a 70s VW bus so he could drive it across the country. He married his first love—they were long distance for seven years. He reads poetry constantly; believes experiences define a life, and pursuing art is the purpose behind his existence. Ashley kept all of his Legos growing up and plays with them with his three kids. He’s in the Army. He likes big dogs.

Visit asforclass.com to learn more about Ashley, or to sign up for his mailing list to receive an exclusive and free novella.

His mailing list is also the best way to learn about upcoming projects, exclusive deals, and opportunities for free advanced versions of his work.

You can find out more about Ashley at his various social media sites. Drop by and say hello. Or howdy, if that’s more your speed.

Facebook

Twitter

Web

As a side note, if you’re ever interested in doing a guest post, drop me an email and we’ll figure it out all out. Questions or comments for Ashley? Drop ’em in the comments section.

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WATWB – Your Monthly Shot of News That Doesn’t Suck

I’ve been a proponent of space travel ever since I was young and discovered Star Trek. One on level, this was due to the excitement of travelling the galaxy and seeing new and exciting new things, reaching out to find civilizations, boldly going, and all that fun stuff. It wouldn’t be until I was older and Kirk’s many green-skinned dates started to look more interesting and when I was much older that I started to look at space exploration as a species survival mechanism.

Whoops. Wrong picture.
Ah, there we go.

Now, I’m not trying to be alarmist, but if our species stays in one place – namely this planet – we’re toast in the long run. If we don’t manage to destroy ourselves through war or flat-out wrecking the environment in the name of profit, something is going to get us eventually. Most people know about the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event, that hunk of space debris that whacked the dinosaurs along with most life on the planet, but that was just one of many times the Earth teetered on the brink of becoming yet another lifeless hunk of space rock. The bottom line, folks, is we need to get off this rock and scatter to the stars so we don’t have all our bread in one basket.

Fortunately, science is on our side. With all the rhetoric and kerfuffle surrounding the current U.S. leader and the Russians, it’s easy to forget that wars are started by politicians, not normal people. Normal people usually don’t care about countries unless they’re prompted to, scientists even less so. Science doesn’t care about politics or religion or elections, it cares about science and what it can do for us.

I recently read a story that reminded of two things: science is still working and not everyone is completely batshit insane these days. In order to get off planet, we need to take baby steps. Among other things, that’s going to require getting back to the moon and establishing a permanent presence there. That’s no small feat and one that’s going to require cooperation – something sorely lacking in the world these days. Science has our back, though; US and Russian scientists are working together to get us into space.

Because we can either have this as a future.

Swim up pinball machine? Hell, yeah!
Not actually New Mexico. Yet.

Or this.

Read about it here

As always, drop a comment in the comments file. I love comments.

If you’d like to get hold of more news that doesn’t suck, go check out this month’s hosts:

Michelle Wallace, Peter Nena, Emerald Barnes, Andrea Michaels and Shilpa Garg

If you’d like to join up with We Are The World Blogfest, I have good news for you: it’s free. Go check it out here.

~~~GUIDELINES~~~

1. Keep your post to below 500 words, as much as possible.

2. All we ask is you link to a human news story on your blog on the last Friday of each month, one that shows love, humanity and brotherhood.

3. Join us on the last Friday of each month in sharing news that warms the cockles of our heart. No story is too big or small, as long as it goes beyond religion and politics, into the core of humanity.

4. Place the WE ARE THE WORLD Badge on your sidebar, and help us spread the word on social media. Tweets, Facebook shares, G+ shares using the #WATWB hashtag through the month most welcome. More Blogfest signups mean more friends, love and light for all of us.

5. We’ll read and comment on each others’ posts, get to know each other better, and hopefully, make or renew some friendships with everyone who signs on as participants in the coming months.

6. To signup, add your link in WE ARE THE WORLD Linky List below.

This is a Blog Hop!

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Click here to enter your link and view this Linky Tools list…

And now, your moment of Zen

Book Review – Queens by Patrick Hodges

I reviewed book I of The Wielders of Arantha back in May. Now, a scant four months or so later, book II has dropped. I’m truly not sure how he managed to write, edit, and release such a complex story in such a short period of time, but I have it on good authority Patrick Hodges might not exactly human. It’s entirely possible he’s a reincarnation of one of the greats of the 30s, a new Walter Gibson or Lester Dent, a man who can manipulate words with the best of them.

Book I found an Earth ravaged by alien invasion. The hated Jegg had shown up and basically torn up the joint. A final, last-ditch effort by some of the few remaining humans sent a ship to a distant planet in search of something that might save the planet and drive off the Jegg. On Elystra, Maeve And Davin found more than they bargained for when they stumbled across a society where people could control the elements and armies marched with powerful magicians at their head.

That first book ended part way through the story, which was my only real complaint about it. Book II, Queens, picks up exactly where Book I ended and ups the stakes.

In addition to being a cracking good story to read, Hodges spends some time exploring the way our preconceived notions drive the way we do things. Most of Elystra cannot comprehend a woman that can wield the elements, while the women who walled themselves off from the world have difficulty imagining men who aren’t complete jerks. It’s kind of like the battle of the sexes on a global scale, except they come to the conclusion that there’s no real reason to be fighting, especially since a greater threat has arisen.

That’s another theme to the story, the idea that the things we do can have extremely long-lasting repercussions, the kind of stuff no one ever saw coming. Themes like these make for a resounding story and Hodges – originally a youth/YA author – handles the adult themes with aplomb.

All in all, an excellent read.

A cosmic game of chess is underway, and the planet Elystra is the board.

Earth pilot Maeve and her son Davin have joined the Ixtrayu, hoping to avert the destruction that their leader, Kelia, has foretold. But will Maeve’s burgeoning Wielding powers be enough to thwart the machinations of Elzor and his lightning-wielding sister, Elzaria, before everything the Ixtrayu have ever known is destroyed in Elzor’s quest for ultimate power?

Queens is Part Two in the Wielders of Arantha trilogy. If you love science fiction or fantasy, then this series will thrill and enthrall you!

Get your copy on Amazon

Check out Patrick’s FB author page

Follow Patrick on Twitter

Check out his website

 

Nazi Swine

I learned something interesting a few days. There’s an old phrase that anyone who ever watched Bugs Bunny cartoons has probably heard: “Them’s fightin’ words.” It was one of the irascible Yosemite Sam’s lines, if I recall correctly.

fightinwords
Don’t criticize the quality. That would be fightin’ words.

Over the years, the phrase has been attributed to and used by many a rapscallion, roughneck, and tough guy, usually as an excuse to kick someone’s ass and over time it’s become more and more of a joke.

“I don’t like the beer in this joint.”

“Stranger, them’s fightin’ words.”

Yes, there are people who will get into a fight over beer. There are also people who will get into a fight over almost anything and using the adage “Them’s fightin’ words” gives them a flimsy moral excuse. After all, I just warned you of a fight and gave you a chance to back down gracefully after you told me canned salsa was better than homemade or Alien’s Imperial Stout was better than Marble‘s Imperial Stout. (They’re actually both pretty good.)

What I learned today was “Them’s fightin’ words” is actually a thing from a quasi-legal perspective.

Let’s back up for a moment, though. I can’t speak to the laws of other countries, but in the United States we hold Freedom of Speech as sacrosanct, even if most people don’t completely understand that the 1st Amendment to the Constitution only refers to freedom of speech in terms of what laws Congress can make. In other words, if you get kicked out of a Target for screeching Bible verses at other patrons, it’s not a 1st Amendment issue since Target is a private entity and not Congress. Target has every right to kick you out of the store if you’re being an offensive jackass.

That said, there are still laws on the books that are designed to protect freedom of speech and we in the States tend to take it pretty seriously. There are certainly people out there looking to block people from saying things they don’t like (Evangelicals and hippies come to mind), but most of us hear something we don’t like and, if it’s harmless, just roll our eyes and move on.

As a for instance, this truck is protected speech. Also, ladies, I’m pretty sure this guy is available.

odge-you-ll-get-the-d-later-720x752
Class act.

The kicker here is the idea of harmless. A big black truck promising to give you the D later is tacky, but pretty harmless in the global scheme of things. It’s the kind of thing that might make you roll your eyes, but won’t cause any long term damage. It may be offensive, but being offended never killed anyone.

Now, to get to the point and explain the headline. Earlier today a group of people tracked down a guy wearing a swastika armband. Words were exchanged and the Nazi wound up getting knocked out with a single punch. Had the guy just been strutting around with a Nazi armband and leaving everyone alone, I’d be less inclined to agree with decking him, but apparently he’d also been tossing racist epithets, harassing, and threatening people, too.

And that is where “Them’s fightin’ words” comes into play. Wearing a swastika armband is offensive, but ultimately harmless. As soon as threats come into play – immediate ones, not “in the future, maybe” kinds of vague speech – that’s a whole new ballgame and now you’ve gone well beyond protected speech.

And that, friends, means when you get knocked out, you pretty much brought it on yourself.

If you’re wandering around town in a Nazi armband, you’re offending the millions that died at their hands or died trying to wipe Nazi filth off the planet, but you’re not technically breaking any laws. Don’t expect people to love you for it, but you should be safe. If, however, you’re wearing a swastika armband and causing an immediate threat, don’t be surprised when someone busts your ass.

If you’re into Nazis getting knocked out, check out the YouTube video.

Further reading on Fighting Words

Wikipedia

First Amendment Center

Cornell Law School (just a definition)

Neweum

Another Week, Another Whiner

rant

My grandfather was an engineer in the defense industry back in the day. Like most engineers, he had all kinds of corny jokes like pointing at water tanks and asking, “What are those?” When I’d answer, “Tanks,” he’d reply, “You’re welcome, but what are those.”

And so it went.

But his favorite joke still makes me chuckle every now and then. It seems the when Japanese auto industry was starting up, they wanted some expertise to help kick start their processes and designs, so they went to the source and hired a German guy. He worked tirelessly, creating their process flows and initial engineering designs of what would eventually become some of the most iconic cars on the road. After he finished and was about to go back to Germany, flush with the knowledge of a job well done, he met with the company owners in the boardroom.

“You have done an excellent job,” the CEO said, “but we have more request. It shouldn’t take much of your time. It would seem we need to change the name of the company and would like your input on what to call it.”

“Can I take a few days to think about things?” the German engineer asked.

“Unfortunately, no. We must have the required paperwork ready to go today, so we need a new name in the next ten minutes.”

“Dat soon?”

If you get that joke, congrats, you’re a car geek. If you don’t, well, don’t worry about it. But here’s a hint:

datsun240z
Fun fact: my dad loved these cars.

Back in the 70s and 80s, the Japanese auto manufacturers were making great inroads into the American market. American cars of the time used a lot of gas and had all kinds of reliability issues, so the cheaper, more efficient, more reliable Japanese cars started to look attractive to American consumers. Sure, early Hondas and Toyotas lacked the luxury of some of the American brands, but they were almost maintenance-free and didn’t use much fuel. Those things, coupled with the low cost price points, put a huge amount of Japanese cars on American roads in short order.

American manufactures, stung by their dwindling markets, did the logical thing and slammed the Japanese manufacturers and anyone who drove one of their cars as un-American and referred to those early Japanese vehicles as rice-burners, Jap scrap, and a variety of other less-than-pleasant epithets. Not to mention pointing fingers at people buying Japanese cars and complaining about how they were giving their money to Japan. I’m sure those insults and slurs were small comfort to the people standing on the side of the road because their Chevy just spontaneously dumped all its oil or standing over the charred remains of the AMC that exploded after a minor rear-end accident. Especially as a Honda CVCC buzzed by with the windows down and the stock AM radio blaring.

Still, for the US auto industry, sales were dropping and every little dip took away more jobs and more money. Ultimately, it took years for the American auto manufacturers to get their collective shit back together and ask what the hell happened. Surprise! It turned out the people buying Japanese cars weren’t un-American assholes, they just wanted cheap, reliable, efficient cars, something the American companies seemed to have forgotten how to make.

The American auto manufacturers are getting back on track and have learned to make cheaper, more reliable, more efficient vehicles of their own, just like the Japanese companies figured out how to add amenities and make some truly luxurious vehicles. Entire lines of vehicles from both sides of the ocean have vanished to the dustbin of history because they weren’t profitable and what’s left over comes and goes as the sales ebb and flow. But, both Japanese and American auto industries are still running strong.

Oddly, now the US cars are often cheaper than the Japanese cars and the Koreans are about to do to the Japanese auto companies what the Japanese did to the American companies. A lot of Japanese cars are now made in American and a lot of American cars are made in Mexico. And Mexico has developed its own kick-ass supercar: the 1400bhp Inferno.

Inferno
Slicker than snot on a greased doorknob. I want one.

So, what does all this have to do with writing and whiners? Funny you should ask.

Late last week, a friend of mine posted a link on her Facebook page to a diatribe some traditionally-published author had written about how horrible the indie authors were. It was cleverly titled “We Live In A Literary World of Terrible Self-Published Authors”. Launching from that subtle point, Koz continued a nuanced discussion of how every indie author everywhere was just … terrible. From the covers to the writing it was all bad.

All bad. And he continued to whittle away at the indie author world with the tell-tale restraint you only get from traditionally published authors who are watching their sales plummet:

“Normally, traditionally published books have an expectation of quality. This includes great editing, cover art, formatting, and foreign translations. I am not saying all traditionally published books are good, but the average indie title is utter trash.”

As indies, we’re apparently cutting into sales and, gasp, probably won’t join any respectable writing organizations because we’re not professionals. He even statistics to prove his case and used big words to back it up.

“This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.”

But the funny thing is, once you strip away the bullshit, you’ll see Koz isn’t ranting from the window ledge for the good of all mankind. He may be advocating better quality control in the indie world (which, admittedly, it can use), but the reason why he’s so hopped up comes down to the one thing that’s repeated over and over in the article: sales of traditionally published books are down.

In other words, money.

So, here’s something to ponder: If sales of traditionally published books are down and people are buying up what Koz calls “utter trash”, why would that be? It seems to me to be counter-intuitive. Why buy crap when you can get the best books out there with great editing, cover art, formatting, and foreign translations?

13486232
Shut up, Zoidberg.

If you ever want to find out why something is happening, follow the money. From car manufacturers, to politicians, to publishing houses, and beyond, money will always tell you the truth about reasons, because almost all reasons come down to money. You can chuckle all you want, you can say it’s not true, you can even stick your fingers in your ears and yell, “La la la, I’m not listening to you! Fake news! Fake news!”, but the truth is money is the root of most decisions.

I think I’ve pointed out on this blog multiple times that publishers are in the business of doing exactly one thing: making money. The fact that they publish books is just the means to the end of making money. Sure, in order to make the most money, they have to produce a good product or they’re gonna go the way of the AMC Pacer in short order, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

Part of marketing your product is finding the appropriate audience. Or creating one. In any given group you’re likely to find a large percentage of people who will buy product X, but you’re never going to get everyone to buy it. Certainly, that’s part of the reason there are so many genres and sub-genres – to cover as much ground as possible. But, if we accept it as an axiom that publishers want to make money, we have to accept they’re going to publish the titles that will give them the best bang for their buck. Publishing traditional paper books is hugely expensive and there’s probably an algorithm the publishers use to determine whether or not a book will be profitable.

In case you’re wondering, yes, that could well be part of the reason you got that rejection letter. It’s not that your book sucked, it’s that might not make enough money to be profitable. If that’s the case, try self-publishing it. If it’s good enough, it’ll sell. If it’s not, go back to the drawing board and figure out how to make it better. Or write another one and another one and another one.

idiocracymoney
Make money, money. Make money, money.

So, money isn’t flowing to the big publishers in the same quantities anymore and people like Koz are screaming at all of us for buying and writing indie books. I get it, they’re losing money and that’s no fun, but just like the American auto manufacturers in the 70s and 80s, Koz and crew are asking the wrong questions and pointing fingers in the wrong directions.

The problem, obviously, isn’t the quality of the work out there. If all Indie works were truly trash, no one would be buying them. Covers and editing are probably holding some people back, but those people are still selling books. So, then, what’s causing readers to flock to Indie books?

Remember, in any large group of people, you’re going to find a subset that will not accept the mainstream ideals and will seek out their own interests. That subset may not be large enough for a traditional publisher to cater to, but it doesn’t mean it’s not a tappable market. Witness the huge amount of money Christie Sims made of dinosaur erotica. If there’s a niche market out there, it’s got to be fans of dinosaur erotica. Note to those fans: I’m not dissing you, I’m just saying you’re an, uh, elite group. Carry on and read whatever makes you happy. But I wouldn’t expect any of the major publishing houses to read a manuscript based on dinosaur erotica and decide to publish it.

And that right there might have more to do with declining sales in traditional publishing than anything Koz can come up with. Some people are still amazed at his great editing, covers, and foreign translations, but a lot of people are just bored with his shit and want to read something else.

So, all you traditionally published authors out there might want to take a step back just like the American auto manufacturers had to all those decades ago and find out just what’s really going on. Pointing fingers and flinging shit is all fun, but it’s not solving your problem. Rather than writing hit pieces, why don’t you take a gander at what your problem really is.

As for the rest of you, keep writing. Remember, a pro is an amateur that didn’t quit. Keep moving forward and getting better at what you do.

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Even though I’m loath to give Koz and crew more clicks, I believe in fairness. If you want to read the article I’ve been referring to, check it out here.

Book Review – The Secret Six: The Red Shadow by Robert J Hogan

Okay, so here’s the thing: The Secret Six: The Red Shadow was published in 1934, so this isn’t going to be a traditional book review. After all, it’s not like an 84-year-old pulp novel really needs more Amazon reviews. The original pulp magazine that published The Red Shadow is long out of business and the author – Robert J. Hogan – died in 1963.

So, why bother reviewing this book at all?

The Secret Six was a short-run series of pulp stories about a group of people who get together and decide to fight crime. Think of them as the original Avengers without the tights and super powers. In a lot of ways, the pulp heroes of the 30s were the prototypes for the superheroes of today. Characters like King, the Key, Bishop, the Doctor, and Shakespeare laid the foundations for what would come later.

The 1930s was when the superhero was created, even if the term wasn’t commonplace at the time. Remember, Superman wouldn’t debut until 1938 (even though Siegel and Shuster had created him in 1933) and Batman wouldn’t don the gray tights and bust skulls until 1939. This was the era of Doc Savage and The Phantom and a panoply of other heroes both remembered and forgotten.

Obviously, not all of these pulp fiction heroes would be remembered down the road. The Secret Six falls squarely into that category. Of course, here it is 84 years later and I’m writing a review of their first adventure, so maybe they weren’t quite so forgettable.

Action stories are, in a lot of ways, all the same. Bad guys do bad things and good guys stop them. Like all pulp fiction stories, the bad guys in the Secret Six were completely over the top and the good guys were a bit less than angels. Even Doc Savage, who typically refused to kill anyone, had little compunction about letting the bad guys get eaten by giant ants or plunge to their grisly deaths off Aztec pyramids. So, next time you think of Batman’s anti-hero aesthetic as being unique, remember he was the natural evolution of people who were only slightly less anti-hero than him.

That’s why, at least from my point of view, it’s important to look back on the pulp fiction of the ’30s every now and then and remember where modern action stories came from.

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And now, for no reason whatsoever, bear knife-fighting

If you’ve never ready any of the pulp fiction from that era, it’s worth taking a look at. Don’t expect miraculous works of art, though. The people that wrote these stories knocked them out like machinery. As such, the quality is sometimes not exactly up to par with something crafted and honed over the space of months of years. Remember, a lot of these books were written in a couple weeks and it wasn’t unheard of for some of the pulp authors to write 10,000+ words per day in order to handle their twice a month book deadlines. That’s 60-70 thousand words each and every day and usually on mechanical typewriters. For those unfamiliar with word counts, a page is usually assumed to contain 250 words. At that level, people like Walter Gibson were writing 40 pages a day. It sounds easy until you try it.

The Red Shadow is fairly standard for most pulp fiction of its era. It’s just clever enough to keep the reader flipping pages, but while it has a lot to offer, it lacks multi-dimensional characters. In fact, some of the supporting characters could have been excised and no one would have noticed they were gone. The story itself was clever enough: A mysterious red force is killing people and it’s up to a rag-tag coalition of people to stop it.

By today’s standards, a red force that kills people doesn’t seem too outlandish, but in the 1930s the story must have bordered on science fiction. In fact, the term “death ray” is thrown around a couple times, even though it doesn’t turn turn out to be a death ray.

Take one part regular badassery, a teaspoon of action and gallantry, and a villain that’s still somewhat mysterious even after we find out who he is and you’ve got the recipe for a quality batch of cookies. Like a lot of the pulp stories of its time, The Red Shadow doesn’t offer a lot of depth, but that was never the point. Pulp stories like The Red Shadow were meant to be the Fast & Furious stories of that generation: they’re pure nitro-burning funny cars for a time when America really needed the escapism that can only come from mindless heroism.

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Say it with me: WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

The actual magazine that printed The Red Shadow is, as noted above, long gone. Even the publishing house that purchased the rights to the Secret Six stories is gone. Fortunately, we live in the future, so finding a copy of The Red Shadow (and the rest of the Secret Six stories) is as easy as clicking a link.

Go get a copy, put your brain on screensaver, and have a little fun tonight. If you want to read a classic, you spend time with Ethan Frome or Ishmael (good books in their own right), or you can hang out with King, Bishop, and the Key, break out of jail, and bust up a budding criminal empire.

Get the complete Secret Six stories here.