Finished Hill House Again

I think the real genius of Hill House is the way Jackson seems to have such a clear idea what’s going on–and, frankly, I don’t think it matters if Jackson thinks she’s writing a real ghost story or a psychological horror or what–the thing is that she’s got a narrative. She knows what gets us from point a to point b to point c.

And then she sticks us in the narrative car (so to speak) with someone who doesn’t at all know why or how we’re going from a to be to c.

I feel like, every once in a while, you get a glimpse of the scaffolding–we hear Theo tease Luke about having her stocking early on; later, when Eleanor so desperately wants to overhear them talking about her, she seems unable to understand that she’s not on their minds at all; the Doctor has a clear idea what things will mean someone has to leave the house; etc.

It all suggests Jackson has this rather thick narrative thread laid out in her head in a way that satisfies her and then she adeptly decides what all to leave out to give us the strand we’re following.

I think this is going to be the hardest part of me in the haunted house story–being willing to keep back in order to build tension. But also to let the action drive the plot. I tend to let my characters get into messes of their own design and then flounder along getting out of them. But I don’t think you can have a floundering haunted house story. Things have to be getting progressively worse or else why worry about the house at all?

A house where something knocks late at night on the bathroom door is just a house with a knock. If it doesn’t lead to anything, if things don’t get progressively worse, then it’s not scary.

You can acclimate to anything, if it goes on long enough. So, the horror has to grow.

Ghost Story Research

Last night I read The Little Stranger and then some of the reviews of it. I thought it was really well-done, though I couldn’t decide if I thought the ending was too ambiguous or too spot on the nose. Which, I guess means that it was just right.

Anyway, I wanted to talk about two things I read in reviews:

One:

Yet, while Waters might have blown the dust off a fusty genre, she can’t escape its limitations. There is an inherent problem with ghost stories: they always boil down to a futile argument between sceptic and believer. Poor Dr Faraday has the thankless task of trying to convince the Ayres that every odd sight and sound and incident has a rational explanation. I eventually grew tired of vacillating between wondering if there was a real ghost and expecting the housemaid to be behind it all; I longed for a credible third way. Waters hints at one, but its supernaturalism disguised with psychology left me dissatisfied.

Two:

Every ghost story needs a Dr Faraday, a blunt literalist with a sturdy sense of self. Such a figure begins as the reader’s surrogate, the voice of scepticism. We’ve been told ghost stories before, and we’re not going to fall for the author’s wiles and tricks; our narrator is determined, on our behalf, to avoid melodrama. Then as the story progresses, our representative comes up with ever more tortured “rational explanations” for bizarre events, explanations that require us to be more imaginative and gullible than we would be if we simply accepted the supernatural. “I see what’s in front of me,” Faraday claims stoutly. For the love of God, the reader cries: wake up man, look behind you! The author has worked a spell. We now see that our guide and mentor is dull-witted, complacent, perhaps self-deceiving; we are turning the pages faster and faster.

On the one hand, I agree with both of these things–that ghost stories do boil down to an argument between believer and rationalist and that, if the author’s done her job, the person in the guide and mentor position does seem eventually dull-witted, complacent, and perhaps self-deceiving. (I should take a moment to note that, if all you know about The Little Stranger comes from the two paragraphs I quoted here, both of them seem to entirely misunderstand Dr. Faraday and what’s going on in the house, so don’t discount the book solely because these paragraphs make Faraday seem dull.)

But I can’t help but think that, unless you move the focus of the argument between the believer and the rationalist, you can’t set a haunted house story in the American South. What Southerner doesn’t love a good ghost story? Even if only as folklore? Who wouldn’t want to hear it? To see for him or herself if it can be experienced? Where would you find a Southern rationalist about ghosts?

The argument isn’t about whether there are ghosts or not. To me, it seems obvious that the argument is about which ghosts are there, why those stories get told, what they mean. In other words, it’s an argument between the history believer and the history rationalist.

Things are Different This Time

This is the start of the haunted house book. I'm taking a ton of notes. I'm thinking hard about the shape. I want it to be scary, which means managing the tension, which means having better control of the narrative than I usually do. I'm also going back to The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree, two of my favorites, to spend some time considering how they're done.

This is the start of the haunted house book. I’m taking a ton of notes. I’m thinking hard about the shape. I want it to be scary, which means managing the tension, which means having better control of the narrative than I usually do. I’m also going back to The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree, two of my favorites, to spend some time considering how they’re done.

The dog wanted his picture taken. This is what I ended up with. For some reason, it reminds me of a ship or a rock or some kind of landscape. I think, in part, because everything I consider recognizably dog--nose, eyes, ears, tail--is missing.

The dog wanted his picture taken. This is what I ended up with. For some reason, it reminds me of a ship or a rock or some kind of landscape. I think, in part, because everything I consider recognizably dog–nose, eyes, ears, tail–is missing.

Snow and Thoughts

The snow blew the dog’s mind this morning. He kept putting his whole face in it and I could tell he kind of wanted to roll around in it but wasn’t sure how that would go. He kept looking back at me like “Is this really real?”

Then he got himself stuck on the porch, so it wasn’t his most shining moment. But it was still, for him, obviously, pretty cool.

I know you guys don’t really care why I’d move on to another novel without having sold either of my other two. First, if only for one reason–my writing has taken a dramatic leap forward in many ways from novel-writing. Two, though I would read a book like the Ben & Sue book and love it as it is right now, clearly it needs something more/else that I’m not in a position to identify.

If I have a book that works, that someone wants, maybe that someone will feel compelled to help me figure out how to make the Ben & Sue project cross the finish line.

Or maybe not.

The truth is that I don’t know. And I’ve talked to a lot of writers and no one knows. There isn’t a path. You don’t do x,y, and then z in order to make “being a writer” happen. Even if a bunch of people all look like they’re doing or have done x,y, and z, the other things they did that didn’t work but that they still needed to do in order to do the things that look like a “typical” writing career aren’t visible.

Plus, I can’t really move forward on the Nashvillains book until I’ve reckoned with how much Isaac Franklin bothers me.

More Snow

They’re predicting the kind of weather tomorrow into Thursday that makes me concerned I’ll be sitting here on my couch Thursday and Friday. Maybe I’ll get ambitious and clean the kitchen, which the Butcher informs me is not part of the dishwashing duties. This comes as a great shock, because, since he’s my brother, I grew up in the same house as him and hung out with his grandparents and I can assure you that we are at least the third generation of people who clean up the kitchen as we do the dishes.

Or at least, we were when I was doing the dishes.

It always makes me feel like a dumbass when I think about how chores happen in our house, because the Butcher could live in a junkyard and be fine. They always advise that roommate (or spouse) harmony comes from respecting the level of filth the other person in the house is willing to live with and, if you need it to be cleaner than that, doing it yourself.

They never explain how to keep from being the only person who cleans in that scenario.

And I’m not an incredibly clean person. I just have standards like “Maybe we shouldn’t just leave the garbage the dog took out of the can on the floor.”

Anyway, I’ve gotten off track because the thought of being here, trapped in this house again, is setting me on edge.

What I came here to say is I think I want to do it–write a ghost story. I mean, I’m old and I’m apparently not getting any more successful as a writer. I want to have written something genuinely scary and unsettling. So, I think I better do it.

Done?

I’m going to look at it again this evening, but I think my big thing is done.

I don’t know that I will ever want to do that again. Not that quickly, anyway.

I’m pretty frazzled.

Nose to the Grindstone

I asked the Butcher to make sure that I didn’t leave this house until I had this thing done. His strategy for making that happen seems to be to have left in my car for… I don’t know. I did laugh, though. The fridge is filled with Dr. Pepper and he’s gone.

There’s no clearer “You have no excuse not to write” signal.

Walking

The Butcher claims that the loop the dog and I did was only a mile and a half and he can’t explain why it took me an hour and a half to walk it. I just don’t think it’s physically possible to walk a mile an hour. I think you could roll that fast. Now, granted, I did have to take pictures and fight with the dog and traverse a huge canyon and a lot of mud, so I guess that built in some time.

But I also think it’s pretty obvious that I fell into some kind of time anomaly. I thought I was taking a forty minute walk, but, bam, sucked into an alternate dimension.

Ha ha ha. You can tell I’ve been listening to Welcome to Nightvale while I crochet. I’m embarrassed at how long it’s taken me to realize that podcasts are the perfect thing to listen to while crocheting. I’ve been putting documentaries on in the background before now.

I’m really pleased with the octagon afghan so far. It seems to be working up fairly quickly. My only concern, and it’s minor, is that I’m using up a ton of the border color and may need to go buy more.

And the walk, I think, knocked loose some things. I think I know what my Grassmere story is going to be. And I think, maybe, I’ve found a historical figure that will take me thought the part of the Nashville book I’ve been stuck on.

So, who knows? Maybe I was sucked someplace where writing ideas happen. Who can complain about that?

Structure

Last night, I was reading about book structure, at least the book structure this thriller writer swears by. And I love shit like this. Tell me there’s a formula, a pattern, and I will learn it and then riff off it. I crochet and cook. I can do what you tell me to do and still feel the end result is mine and something to be proud of.

His argument was that a book should have a structure that goes something like–introduction for 1/4 of the book leading up to the first pivot point, when we meet the problem the protagonist faces and it sets him off on a new course. We then go through the second fourth of the book where the protagonist retreats from his problem and tries to solve it, but cannot. Halfway through this second fourth, we should directly see the full power of the antagonist. This leads up to the mid-point, where something happens that moves the protagonist from reactive to active. Then the third fourth is spent dealing with the protagonist’s demons (which I guess should have been established in the first fourth) and getting his shit together, leading up to a point where it seems all is lost. Then there’s a point halfway through this part, right after it seems like all is lost, when we see the full power of the antagonist again. All this leads up to the second pivot point where the protagonist learns the last bits of information he needs in order to act in the last fourth.

One thing he said, which I really appreciated, is that no new information should come into the book as the story is resolving. Even if it’s information we didn’t know before was important, it needs to be there before. So, the killer cannot gain a twin brother who was really doing the killing all along in the last 30 pages unless there’s been hints to this before the last fourth of the book.

I don’t think that’s a hard and fast rule, but it’s definitely one I prefer. Otherwise, I do kind of experience it as cheating (unless done to humorous effect or to make some kind of commentary).

But I think you can pretty immediately see how this can’t be some “universal” structure that underlies all stories. For one, it presumes a really specific kind of protagonist–one who is able to learn more and more and who then is able to act on it. A lot of horror depends on the tension between learning what’s going on and not being able to act on it.

It also assumes there’s “a” hero or protagonist.

It strikes me as a pretty heroic set-up, with the hero being male and singular.

But I do like the idea of thinking through how your protagonist is going to change throughout the book and building up to those changes and dealing with the fall-out from those changes.¬† (And I also love the “keep new things out of the end of your book!”)

On a related note, I read this incredible short story yesterday about Elvis and Jesse Presley, which does not follow that kind of structure at all. Because, if it were just a matter of plugging things in to a pre-existing form, it wouldn’t be so hard.

Stuck in My Craw

I had a thought, last night on the drive home, about turning the material from the first part of the Nashville book into something fictional. Just let Isaac Franklin flourish and bloom into the monster he is and see what happens.

I don’t know where that fits into my goals for the year. I guess I’ll mull it over for a little while longer.

Keeping Things Moving

I think one trick to being a writer (I don’t know, really, I just have some superstitions) is to have things at various stages. What’s being shopped. What’s just about ready to be shopped. What things are still in some kind of draft form. What’s being mulled over. Oh, yeah, and what’s been sold. Ha ha ha. That’s a thing I’ve learned. Being published can start to seem almost like an afterthought. It happens so much less frequently than submitting things that it’s really easy to come to believe that the cycle of submission and rejection is the end result of all this writing.

A local artist and I are mulling over a children’s book about the sisters who gave the land for the zoo. I was at the TSLA to see what kinds of things I might think about the sisters once I knew a little bit about them. It’s nice to discover that you like the “eccentric sisters” you might come to spend some time with.

But one thing that struck me about their “eccentricities” is that the biggest one is that they tried to run a farm on the land where there’d been a farm for 200 years, even once it was surrounded by the city. And, in order to preserve the farm in the face of urban encroachment, they had to become very, very modern in their own understandings of themselves–they really ran the day-to-day life of the farm–in ways that certainly seemed strange to outsiders. But nowadays, other than having cattle in the middle of town, what’s so weird about a female farmer?

But now I need to go to the zoo and just hang out at the house and get a feel for it at that end. The Butcher and I have been tossing around ideas, but I want to see that house for myself.

Thoughts for When Your Thinker’s Thinking

I have set some goals for the year. Some writing goals. I’m going to attend a con. I’m going to submit my stories to SFWA-qualifying markets first and not try a couple, get frustrated, and then flounder around for someone to publish me. Because otherwise, I’m not getting full membership. I’m going to start keeping my eye open for reprint opportunities.

Then, I feel like, with the movie and potentially full SFWA membership, I might have better luck selling Ben & Sue.

I just want to see my book, published by a publisher who is not me, one the shelves of the bookstores around town. I want to look on my shelf and say “Yep” when I see it.

I don’t quite know how to make that happen. But I’ve got a plan. I can try some stuff. I can see how it goes.

Cutting

One of the reasons I think you need to write a lot–like in a space like this–while and before you’re doing other kinds of writing is to develop the habit of trusting that the words will come. Because sometimes you need to cut, a lot. I cut the whole final 2/3 of my parrot story and went another direction from the place I made the cuts. And I did that because I trusted that I didn’t need those words, that those were not the only words I might get for the story.

When the only writing you do is the writing that really matters, how do you trust in your ability to prune judiciously? I mean, obviously, people do. They’ve developed some other way of trusting that the words will come.

But for me, a lot of it just is that I have to pull a lot of words out of my ass all the time. Even if they suck, even if every bunch of words isn’t a winner, I figure I can always revisit it later. That knowledge, pulled from blogging, has served me well. On accident. Because I certainly didn’t know how useful that shit would be when I started this blog.

Let’s Look at Cool Things Together!

Lesley Patterson-Marx is working on her illustration for The Wolf’s Bane. She’s got photos up at Instagram!

Here are some early sketches.

Here’s the final drawing.

Here’s some artsy stuff I don’t understand, though I love the orange glow.

And here’s a wall of prints.

Her picture illustrates the herbal of Mrs. Overton. Here’s a picture of Mrs. Overton, for comparison (I love everything about that portrait. The look in her eye that the painter captured just warms my heart.)

Perhaps a Song The Band Did Back in the Day?

I’ve been at an impasse with my pirate story for a few days. Not a writer’s block impasse, thank goodness. But that kind of impasse where you kind of know what happens next, but you’re just not sure. Characters aren’t quite standing in the right places for them to get to the places they seem to be going. But you don’t want to go back and move them if you’re not sure about the destination.

So, I wait. I just mull over different possibilities–do these people get along? Do they not? If not, why not? And I go back and read what I’ve already written and I reconsider what that information means. Sometimes, it suggests something more than it did when I first put it down, especially once I have the conflict more firmly settled on the page. Those details might now tell me more about how the story ends.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing with the pirate story. Just waiting to see what was going to make sense.

This morning, when I opened the garage door and let the dog out into the night, I started singing “Sweet Pauline, the Pirate Queen. Prettiest gal that I’d ever seen. Mean and tough and quick with a knife. She wouldn’t be a gentleman’s wife.” And I laughed, because it was totally a little bit a rip off of “Amanda,” though faster, but also because I knew it meant that the ending was almost ready.

I Make Myself Happy

My story about Andrew Jackson’s parrot is now called “Sweet Pauline the Pirate Queen, Governor of Tennessee.” It’s about how Andrew Jackson’s parrot briefly was elected governor of Tennessee. And how she’s really Pauline Lafitte, the pirate sister of Jean and Pierre.

The only part I’m stuck on is how one would say “Sweet Pauline” in French.

Well, not the only part. The only two people who would come to her inaugural ball were Mrs. Polk and Mrs. Acklen. So, that’s kind of a bummer. And she had to murder the assassins the other Governor of Tennessee sent after her. Also kind of a bummer. But her eggs know the answers to all questions, so that’s nice.

My First Anthology!

You can now pre-order the anthology, Faed, in which my story, “The Letters Laurel Left Maggie Regarding That Thing in the Woods” appears. It’s a story about how a botched human sacrifice affects generations of a family. Also, there’s singing.

I am Already Learning a Lot from the SFWA

1. It’s cool to remind people what stories you sold last year right about now. All the stories I sold last year were, weirdly enough, about Harpes and their heads. Ha.

–“Sarah Clark” at Eurynome¬†

–“Zilpha Murrell and the Third Harpe’s Head” at Beyond Borderlands

2. It’s not weird to send your stories back to markets you’ve already had success with.

3. Some people incorporate. Somehow. I haven’t read up too much about that.

4. I should probably be going to conventions. Well, I know nothing about conventions. So… yeah… I don’t know how that’s going to go.

But, as the Red-Headed Kid once so famously said, “I’m going to have to use self-promotion to promote myself.” So, I’m going to have to learn some of this stuff. Even if it makes me nervous.

On the other hand, reading through everything, I have apparently been doing everything wrong and I’ve had fun and gotten some things published. So, fucking up’s consequences–at least in this case–aren’t that dire.

Beyond, Behind, Below

I realized this when I was walking yesterday (oh, hell no, I didn’t walk this morning!): “Beyond, Behind, Below” is the story that I always think about when I’m walking this time of year–when it’s cold and the grass sparkles as the first light hits it, when I’m alone for most of the walk, because it’s too early for cars. I just always have this sense that something could happen–a man could emerge from the mist–and, in this weather, I just wouldn’t be surprised.

Some Thoughts on Writing

–Thought Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut, and Lauren Oliver’s Rooms could not be more different in all other respects, they all have weird issues with their fat characters, and assuming that “fat” is some kind of shorthand for “in need of betterment.” It’s weird because most people in our country are fat. And regardless of your opinions about it as a health issue, how could you be a person in this country and interact with people in this country, again the majority of whom are fat, and still be under the impression that being fat is some kind of moral condition a writer can give insight into? It’s just weird. It doesn’t even piss me off so much as befuddle me. I have a lot of friends of all shapes and sizes and I truly don’t perceive the thinner ones passing any kind of judgement about my morality based on my fat. But it makes me wonder if there are great swaths of non-fat people who somehow have separated themselves off from fat people and really don’t know or understand what our lives might be like, especially if we don’t perceive of ourselves as being morally deficient.

–I am trying to join the SFWA. I feel like I need something to happen with my writing and I am at a loss as to what that is. This seems like something I can do. So, hopefully, they’ll accept my application. I’m also going to commit this year to trying to sell two more stories to the markets you have to sell to in order to become a full member, instead of just floundering away at Duotrope going all “Oh, this looks interesting. These are some cool stories. I’ll send here. Oh, they don’t pay? Well, but I like the work they’re doing and I like being published.”

–I was talking to Elias last night (not just about how much the Mandela effect website freaked me out because I am too prone to those kinds of thoughts in the first place, but we did talk about that) and I referred to Project X as “that stupid werewolf book.” He laughed at me–which, you know, it’s important to know people who will laugh at you when you need it. But here’s the thing I have learned about this process. I can’t sustain enthusiasm for anything indefinitely. I need to feel like things are happening and that I have some ideas what I need to do next and I need to feel like there’s some known, recognizable end.

–I can apply to the SFWA for an associate membership because of “Frank.” Okay, but here’s the thing. Apex published “Frank” in 2011. Like, seriously, what have I accomplished since then? I’ve been doing things. It’s not like I wrote “Frank” and then was like “Yep, that’s as good as it gets. I’ll just do like Norman Greenbaum and do whatever the fuck Norman Greenbaum did with his life and coast on my one awesome thing.” I’ve been working. I’ve written some things that I just love the shit out of. That I’m proud of. But I guess I’m still Norman Greenbauming it up.

–While I was writing this, I got an email from the SFWA and I’m in! So, Goal 1 of the new year accomplished.

–I have to try to find an agent for the Ben & Sue project. I’ve just been disheartened a long time about it. I still really love it, though.

–“Norman Greenbauming it up” appears to include growing an awesome mustache and making a trippy music video, so at least that part will be fun.

Procrastinating with Keeping Busy

I’ve been avoiding work on the Nashville book by writing short stories. I’ve got one about a woman who discovers she’s got a small-scale replica of Memphis in her belly, and one about the only girl in a family of seventh sons and her memories of her grandfather, and one about fortune telling and kidnapping and a failed studfarm. I’m working on one now about a woman who challenges a beaver to a dam building contest.

I keep writing about families, even when I don’t think that’s what I’m writing about. I’m just obsessed with how much of our current lives are the way they are because of choices and patterns set by our dead relatives long before we came along.

But I’m also kind of fascinated by just how little strangeness has to happen in a story for me to feel like it counts as fantasy.

I’m also kind of obsessed with writing stories about being working poor or maybe just recently out of that. A lot of these stories are, in part, about how a lack of money constrains you in ways that even having super awesome powers–psychic abilities or magic or whatever–doesn’t really help.

I don’t know if they’re any good, but they’re coming and, sometimes when you’re writing, that’s all you can ask.