Chuck Wendig’s New Book

I just finished Chuck Wendig’s new book, Zeroes. It was fine! But more than that, I don’t really feel qualified to say. I read a lot differently when I’m writing than I do when I’m not, so I can’t say whether you, as a reader, might¬† like it. I, as a writer, really did. One thing he does that I want to think hard about for my next draft, is his specificity. I think that I tend to gloss over the details that I don’t think are that important in a story, because I hate when unimportant things are given too much attention.

I don’t have Wendig’s book in front of me, but let’s say that we’re writing a story about a guy who goes to the store to get some orange juice and, on the way, he gets abducted by aliens. Let’s say that the least important element in the story is the car he takes.

The kind of writing I don’t like might go something like “He gently eased his Levi-encased buttocks onto the leathery seat of the musty old El Camino, the color of sunsets or fresh, coppery menstrual blood, and rested his cracked hands on the ancient wheel. The car smelled of elderberries, freshly picked by young virgins on a cool, Spring morning.”

A lot of my writing goes like this: “He got in his car and he drove toward the store.”

But a Chuck Wendig-ish sentence goes something like “He got into his rusty, old El Camino and headed up the street to the IGA.”

You don’t spend too much time reading about things that aren’t important, but you spend enough time on them to get a taste of something you otherwise wouldn’t get. You can see how “he got into his new Lexus and headed up the street to the Whole Foods” changes the whole flavor of the sentence, implies a hundred different things about this “him” than the other “him,” none of which you can even begin to guess about my “him.”

I’m not terrible at that kind of specificity, but I’ve been hip-deep in this novel long enough to know that I’m not great at it. Watching someone just nail it sentence after sentence after sentence makes my inadequacies really stand out to me.

C.S. Lewis in Your Writing Group

We were briefly talking about what it would be like to have C.S. Lewis in your writing group and how that might explain a lot about why Tolkien had songs and histories of various grasses and chapters devoted to wandering around in circles, because Lewis would be all “Today, I have an essay on why there’s so much suffering and whether children deserve pain” and everyone else in the group would be all “Um, we’re still helping Tolkien get through this tricky part about… um…” They all look at Tolkien.

“This song about trees?” He shrugs.

But I was thinking about it on our walk this morning and, lord, could you imagine Lewis’s elevator pitches?

“Okay, it’s an allegory about Christ and the dangers of modern women set in a magical land with lions.”

“Okay it’s an allegory about Christ and the dangers of modern women set in space.”

“Okay, it’s a book of essays about Christ and the dangers of modern women.”

Can you imagine the time he was all “Okay, it’s a book about bureaucratic devils.”

All the other Inklings chime in “and the dangers of moder–wait, what? Just about bureaucratic devils?”

Tolkien’s all whispering to his neighbor “So, I don’t need this song about a sword to distract him?”

Lewis is confused. “Yes, just bureaucratic devils. Why? Do you think it needs some dangerous modern women in there? I could add some.”

“No, no, no. This is great. Much better than our idea.”


I wrote about writing Ashland. I am genuinely glad to see that it’s an interesting read. It makes me feel better about my writing abilities at the moment. Ha ha ha.

This morning, as I was walking the dog, I had a realization about a later part of the book. It made me wonder if I could somehow figure out a way to walk the dog, have a realization, fix that part, walk the dog again, have another realization, etc. But I don’t suppose you could guarantee the realizations.

For me, writing is a weirdly physical thing. I do feel like I’m somehow squeezing or wringing this thing out of me.

And I had hoped to be farther along in this revision before October, which is in so many ways the busiest month of the year for me. I don’t want to lose track of the things I need to do to the book, you know?

One More Ugly Confession about Ashland

Rereading the October stories made it clear that the writing in Ashland sucks. Like, you would not read my stories and read this book and think that I’d written the book after I’d written the stories. So, this means that, after I get all the bones and joints of the story how I want it, hinges opening how they should, I’ve still got to fix that.

So, the big goals stand:

  1. Finish Draft 4.
  2. Do a version of the beginning that starts in the present day.
  3. See how I like it.
  4. Possibly do a draft that accounts for the new beginning.
  5. Improve the writing of the whole thing.

And I need to rework the television crew earlier in. But I had an idea that might work that goes along with my slim-down efforts–i.e. there can’t be that many camera guys in the world. So, if I have one group of camera guys with the ghost hunters and the television crew has a camera guy, might not that one of the camera men be the same person?

This Weekend

Many of my plans fell through. Much rewriting got done. I had breakfast with a friend that went clear past lunch, we were both laughing and solving all of the world’s problems. I’m making an afghan for my grad school friend who’s in Australia kind of having a rough go of things. Yes, I’m going to send her an afghan in the middle of her summer. Oops.

It’s just one of my regular diagonal granny square ones. I really like those.

I was going to tell you all a little bit about how the writing is going from a practical stand-point. I’m still retyping. I have a file called Ashland 3 open on the left side of my screen and a file called Ashland 4 open on the right. Ashland 3 was an exact copy of Ashland 2, my first massive revision. Ashland 4 started out blank. Following along Ashland 3, I either typed whole new things that had to fix what was wrong with the story into Ashland 4 or typed what was there or made minor corrections.

Sometimes I go out and walk the dog and I’m struck by an idea–like, for instance, what my bad guy responds to is not people who know him well, since most of the people who know him well come to loathe him, but people who love the house. That’s the thing that puts you in a semi-protected bubble from him. But I’m not anywhere near fixing that scene in Ashland 4. So, I go ahead and skip to that part in Ashland 3 and fix it there so that it is right, or closer to right, when 4 finally gets to that point.

I’m liking the shape of this version a lot. It’s very slimmed down. The two things about the shape of it that I still feel uncertain about, which still require major mulling over are one small and one large. The small thing is that, at the end, a TV crew is present. We’ve never been introduced to them before. It makes sense that they would show up at the end of the book, but it violates my belief that, in a working horror novel, nothing new is added in the last quarter of the book. I’m still not sure how to work them in earlier, probably deeply in the background, but they need to be there. Since my house doesn’t have a TV, this is a problem. My house does have a radio, though.

I’ll have to think about it.

The other thing is that I’ve now read a lot of haunted house stories and a convention of the genre is the slow descent into batshit stuff. At the moment, this is how Ashland works. But I’m not sure it’s the right way for it to work. I don’t want to change it yet. I want to get the mechanics of the whole story working right. But it’s hanging out there–I may not yet have the beginning right. Like the first quarter of the book. That’s daunting.

It’s Probably Me

I’m limited my exposure to things that stress me the fuck out, including unfollowing everyone on Facebook who is still trying to argue that poor Texan could have had a bomb and that he was the asshole, not his school.

I’m still just filled with rage every time I get on the internet. I prefer Facebook filled with babies and puppies and how fucking nice your life is. Hell, I’d rather know how your life is sad and hard for you right now. I don’t want to know how afraid you are of children you don’t know and will never meet or how, even though you break the law 90 different ways, you’re on the side of authority when it comes to picking on children.

I hate the idea that writers are writers whether they’re published or not. I cling to that idea like a fucking life raft. I hate when I say it to myself because I feel like I’m letting myself off the hook, that I’m making excuses for not being good enough that I can live with. And yet, I also believe that it’s true.

This is just the stage the book is at. Not the book. The book is in okay shape, I think. Or being shaped into okay shape.

This is the stage I’m in while writing the book. I hate everything. I resent that I work so hard on this and nothing’s going to come of it. I’m pissed that I let these self-defeating thoughts live in my head.

I’m mad that people are mean and stupid. I hate that I am so mean and stupid to myself.


Today I finished the shitty Constantine-ripping-off podcast I’ve been power-listening to. There are two kinds of guys I find utterly irresistible–“I am a brilliant, hairy wall” guy and “I am a miserable, but mysterious, fuck.” If Bigfoot started smoking and trying to conjure demons, I would abandon my life to track him down and throw myself at him. I would not be cool enough for Esoteric Bigfoot and that bums me out more than I can tell you, and Esoteric Bigfoot is not even a real thing.

Fuck, now I’m sad.

Oh, right, the poor-man’s John Constantine pod cast. It was terrible. I listened to ever episode with rapt attention. I binged listened to the whole thing until they killed him off. Oh, fuck them, those terrible pod cast writers. But it’s not popular enough for there to be any spoilers about whether he lived through being killed off. So, I had to keep listening.

And he did indeed live. And the ending was so sweet and he told the weird goth girl that she was the only thing he loved and I got all teary.

But I’ve been thinking about it. Why is a cliched character on a terrible pod cast so compelling? I think it’s because he is who he is so vibrantly. The writers might not have known what else they were doing (though it is kind of weird how much better the third season got, as if they all ran away and got MFAs before writing it), but they knew how to write a character who stays true to himself.

I find that really inspiring and compelling.


Every part of this book is so wicked and funny to me. I really hope someone decides to publish it. Today I wrote a part where a guy’s wife insists he sell the enslaved girl he fathered, so he takes her down to New Orleans and gets rid of her and my bad guy buys her and brings her back to town just so he can torment the father. It’s so terrible and it makes me laugh so hard.

It ends poorly for the girl, as all tragedies must. So the bad guy sends a condolence letter to the father. Which is also hilarious and terrible.

I’m still liking this whole “just retype the motherfucker” strategy. We’ll see how long I can keep it up for, though. It seems to work well for parts that require massive rewriting. We’ll see how I feel when/if we get to parts that are less in need of ditching whole characters and reworking plot lines and adding in some horrors for my bad guy to have perpetrated.


So, I think I have a good idea of what the revisions of Ashland need to look like. And a good idea about the parts that need to be rewritten. And I’ve decided to give this Joe Hill idea a try. I’m retyping it. I have the old version on the left and the new blank page on the right and I just look over and type what works and type new stuff where I need to.

Here’s the part I think, if I were to guess, Joe Hill likes about it. If you come to a part where you’re like “Ugh, I have to type all that?” you know it needs to go.

I don’t know if I’ll stick with it the whole way through, but for now, it’s kind of blowing my mind about how easily and clearly it shows you what needs to go.


There’s a fight/discussion/kerfluffle in the sci-fi/fantasy world about “nerds” vs. “cool kids.” And there are a lot of people rushing to declare their nerdiness and decry any charges of being a “cool kid.” This is dumb for a number of reasons, first and foremost being that we’re not in high school anymore and a bunch of adults still letting the standards of children dictate whether they think they have cultural value and, if so, what kind, is dumb as fuck. Thirteen year olds are fucking idiots. It’s a miserable time and they’re miserable people. Our efforts should be to help them live through it with as much grace as possible, not to empower them to dictate how we feel about our adult lives.

But second, and just as important in many other ways, I want to stick up for cool, because cool is at its core a response to oppression. That most of sci-fi/fantasy doesn’t get this just shows how very white the genre is and how very much a lot of us need to read Donnell Alexander’s “Cool Like Me” and sit with it a long, long time.

Let me repeat, cool is at its core a response to oppression.

Alexander says:

Cool was born when the first plantation nigga figured out how to make animal innards-massa’s garbage, hog maws and chitlins-taste good enough to eat. That inclination to make something out of nothing and then to make that something special articulated itself first in the work chants that slaves sang in the field and then in the hymns that rose out of their churches. It would later reveal itself in the music made from cast-off Civil War marching-band instruments (jazz); physical exercise turned to public spectacle (sports); and street life styling, from pimps’ silky handshakes to the comer crack dealer’s baggy pants. Cool is all about trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. It’s about living on the cusp, on the periphery, diving for scraps. Essential to cool is being outside looking in.

Cool is making something out of nothing and then making it special. If that’s not what a writer aspires to, then fuck that writer.

Alexander rightly identifies “cool” as an idea black people brought to U.S. culture. Misunderstanding “cool” is stupid. Publicly repudiating and rejecting “cool” is a mixture of accepting the definition of cool some pre-teen gave you when you were a pre-teen, which is dumb as fuck, and replicating the same old erasures of black contributions to culture that so many of the very people rejecting being called “cool” claim to be against.

Most of the people who don’t want to be called cool aren’t cool. Not by the fucked-up-child definition they’re using, not in the sense of cool being a response to oppression.

But they could be. Again, back to Alexander:

Humans put cool on a pedestal because life at large is a challenge, and in that challenge we’re trying to cram in as much as we can-as much fine loving, fat eating, dope sleeping, mellow walking, and substantive working as possible. We need spiritual assistance in the matter. That’s where cool comes in. At its core, cool is useful. Cool gave bass to 20th-century American culture, but I think that if the culture had needed more on the high end, cool would have given that, because cool closely resembles the human spirit. It’s about completing the task of living with enough spontaneity to splurge some of it on bystanders, to share with others working through their own travails a little of your bonus life. Cool is about turning desire into deed with a surplus of ease. Some white people are cool in their own varied ways. I married a white girl who was cooler than she ever knew.

Fine loving, fat eating, dope sleeping, mellow walking, and substantive working. Fuck yes. This is it folks. And, no, most of the people who are saying “Well, I’m not one of the cool kid,” aren’t doing these things. But I know at least they aspire to be doing substantive work. So, what’s wrong with being cool? Or aspiring to be cool? Or finding value in being cool?

Cool is a response to oppression that enabled people to survive that oppression. At its worst, which is not very bad, cool is a coopting of the posture that enables survival. Why would we throw that out or turn our backs on it?

I’m not cool, but I damn well strive to complete “the task of living with enough spontaneity to splurge some of it on bystanders, to share with others working through their own travails a little of [my] bonus life.”

That’s why I write. That’s why I write here. That’s why I write at Pith. That’s why I write the stories I write. That’s why I sit down and write novels I can’t sell, or haven’t sold, or whatever. Substantive working. And sharing a little of my bonus life.

If someone called me cool, they’d be wrong, but I’d be honored. Still a nerd, but honored.


I got all caught up in Pith hullabaloo and I forgot to blog yesterday.

This weekend is the Midsouth Book Festival over in Memphis and I’m moderating a panel. I’m very excited and nervous.

The dogs and cats have reached some kind of understanding, but I still have to feed the cats behind the drum set, because they won’t come that far out of hiding. I imagine, if we set them up a secret path throughout the whole house, where they could just sneak around without being seen, they’d be quite happy.

I had no idea that fake NPR-ish supernatural podcasts were a whole genre, but they appear to be. I’m kind of excited about Limetown, and not just because it’s set in Tennessee and seems sort of aware of our history as a place for hidden government facilities and failed utopias.

I’m letting Ashland percolate while I have a busy couple of weeks. But then I’m diving in to revisions. I’m considering going down to Ravenswood and sitting on the porch again to do some. I looked into what it might cost to rent it for the day, just to be able to sit inside it and work, but the deposit! Holy shit. I mean, I just want to sit in a chair in a corner and type and occasionally wander around and check out views and such. Not bring 250 people in there for a wedding.

So, if any of you have an 1820s 8-room antebellum mansion you’d let me write in for free or for maybe $100, please holler.

Ha ha ha.

I’m too poor to even get in dead rich people’s houses.

I’m Missing a Door, Possibly Two

But I think my casual writer’s retreat was a success. I retreated, anyway.

Making My Own Writing Retreat

This weekend, I’m going to go sit on the porch of Ravenswood and think about revisions. I might tour Carnton. I can’t decide. I hate those stairs. As I hate most stairs. But I hate those stairs.

I read that Joe Hill writes his book and then, once he has a handle on what all the problems are, he just rewrites it, fresh, not using the old first draft even as a guide. I guess then he picks and chooses from between the two versions what he likes best. I kind of envy that and find it frightening. More what I want is to make room for something to grow along side my draft in my brain.

Of all the things in the book, I am the least concerned about the house. I could walk it in my sleep. But I still feel like sitting at a house like that is useful. And finding one the right age is tricky.

On an unrelated note, I haven’t forgotten about October. I just don’t have anything terribly cool lined up for ye olde blog. I do, however, have a couple of uncool things, I think.

Back to the Black Book

If you want an illustration of how Ashland is going, I set aside my baby blanket after a gross miscalculation about how much yarn I would need and started an old-fashioned granny square, something that would sit in my hands and require no thought.

Reports from my readers are coming in and, I swear, even when you say to yourself, “Yeah, something’s not quite right here and here and here but I can’t figure out what it is” and then you say “Hey, guys, can you help me?” when they say “Yeah, something’s not quite right here and here and here and I think it’s this and this and this,” my immediate reaction is “Why does everyone hate me and think I suck?” Like, seriously. At this point, having been through this a few times, I know the feeling will pass. But it’s ridiculous.

I’m going to say that, in a way, I kind of get the Puppies. Not in the slating or the cozying up to that Nazi, but I get the massive amount of pouty hurt that they run around with. I feel that same pouty hurt. I totally get the impulse to say “Well, why can’t my shitty thing be good enough? Lots of shitty things are good enough! Fuck it! My shitty thing is good enough and I will destroy everyone who says it isn’t!”

Plus, that approach has its victories. It’s satisfying.

Whereas, the thing I have to do now is not satisfying. It’s scary. I have to crack this thing open and fix a lot of things. And, at the end of all that work, there’s no guarantee that it will be good enough.

That sucks and, like I said, is scary. But that’s the way to get to where I want to go.

So, I’m moving the black book full of notes back into my purse and I’m back to mulling and mulling and making granny squares with my hands so my mind can focus on other crap.

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

I did almost nothing this weekend. I mean, I did it hard. I basically sat on the couch and played Civilization until I’d crawled so far in my head I had no choice but to crawl back out. The dog and I went for walks. I read some. But basically, I spent the weekend trying to get my brain to shut off.

Which, ha, is terrible, because there will come a time when I spend days trying to get my brain to turn back on, but that’s life.

The kids saw crawdads eating a snake skin. The crows alighted on lamp posts just ahead of me. I delivered the tripping jaguar afghan and it looks perfect in the room it was made to go in. I couldn’t be more pleased.

As I was walking this morning, the mist rose out of the hills in a layer, like someone was lifting a blanket. And it reminded me of “Beyond, Behind, Below,” which, maybe, is not my best story, but it’s the best I’ve ever done saying something true about this place, right here, and how it seems like it could be.

Sour and Worry

Last night, I got a rejection. I feel like I’m at the point where a rejection feels more like touching the sore spot on your face, rather than getting punched, but it’s still unpleasant. It tastes sour.

On Twitter right now, someone is railing against stories that feature rape and I am sitting here in response, fretting about Ashland, which is, at its heart, a story about American slavery, and thus a story about rape. It is also a story about a kind of abuse there’s not a word for but that lays along those same lines.

I worry a lot about Ashland, mostly about whether I have the chops to pull it off and whether, if I do, anyone will want it.

But, to me, an important theme of the story is the ways in which we talk about American slavery as if it was something terrible white people did to black people a long time ago–“we” did to “them”–where we draw this firm line and push all the burden of reckoning with it off on the victims and their descendants while we assume white people pretty much came out of slavery, the perpetration of slavery, scot-free.

I assume this is a lie. An obvious lie we should all be able to recognize. Slavery was something people did to their own children, to their own nieces and nephews. A man who could sell his own child when he knew what men did to slaves, which he did because he was doing it, that man had to, by definition, be capable of doing anything to his children. So why wouldn’t he?

The heart, or a heart, of Ashland is the horror inherent in the assumption that whiteness is any protection from that kind of evil, how assuming that whiteness will protect you actually makes you an easy victim for the villain. And how that kind of destructive abuse echos on down to us, even now.

Draft Done

I have a draft of Ashland. I have all kinds of massive, massive insecurities about it. It’s not a real book, because real books don’t tell history that way. If I had enough confidence in my narrator and her voice, I wouldn’t be worried about how she tells history. My narrator doesn’t do enough. It’s stupid. No one will like it. My beta readers will tell me I’ve wasted my time and my dreams are dumb.

Or the worst: that it needs a little *something* but none of them and none of me know what.

So, ha ha ha, obviously, I’m not sending it to them yet. This weekend, I was talking to a friend and I was acknowledging that there’s just all kinds of writerly nonsense that everyone does. Like “fuck you, you’re wrong, and you just don’t appreciate my genius!” when you have asked someone for a critique. Or, like the nonsense in the first paragraph. There’s some stuff that you just have to feel and say and do, but you don’t inflict them on others.

You stomp around your kitchen or you yell them to the dog or you do like I do here and write them out so you can see whether they’re legitimate things or just undermining things that keep you from doing the work. Because, if you want the work to be better, if you want to be a better writer, you have to acknowledge you have all these feelings and that, even, they suck. And then you have to put them aside and send the thing anyway or take the critique to heart and see if it is what your work needed. And your readers, at least at this stage, can’t help you with the difficult work if you’re being a baby.

Think of it this way. Say you were in a library and a large book with stiff pages fell off the shelf and impaled you in the stomach. You run up to your friends and you say, “Help, I have this book stuck inside me!” It’s going to hurt when they help you yank it out, but it must come out and, if you thrash about and knock them in the face, they’re going to back off and tell you to find someone else to help you get the book out.

Same thing. So, I’m thrashing about now and will ask for help in a bit.


I think being a writer is a bit akin to being the coyote in the road runner cartoons. There’s a cliff and you have a catapult, and writing is you getting into that catapult and trying to launch yourself to the top of that cliff. But, since, as a coyote, you don’t know physics, you just have to fling yourself at the cliff face and make adjustments based on where you hit. Splat. Splat. Splat. Splat. Oops, I made it.

Then you walk a little farther forward and there’s another catapult and another cliff. No one can take away from you that you made it this far, but the only way forward is to just do some more time hitting the wall.

I’m almost to the point where the only major revision I have to do to Ashland before sending it to my beta readers is to fix the ending. It was okay that the ending didn’t quite blow me away when it was written. And it was allowed to suck while I was adding stuff that needed to be added, because the additional stuff might suggest something about the shape of the ending. But we’re rapidly coming to the point where the ending can’t just lay there like a tired dog anymore. It’s got to get up, run around, and be terrible and delightful.

I don’t know how to do that. So, I’m preparing, mentally, to throw myself against the rocks again and again.

An Accounting of the Plot Holes in Ashland

  1. I mention the house was built by shipbuilders and how excited the narrator is to get into the bones of the house to see if she can tell. She never looks.
  2. I have multiple minor characters with names who appear in just one or two scenes. One of my main characters does not have a first name.
  3. I changed the Mississippi house’s name midway through the book.
  4. I forgot Thursday. I write about all the things that happen on Wednesday then I say “the next day” and it’s Friday. I like Thursdays!
  5. The ghost hunters record audio. The reader never gets to hear what was on it.
  6. In one place, I say a guy had three dead kids. Later, I appeared to give him nearly a million dead children. Which is remarkable, because his wife died during the third kid’s birth.
  7. The bad guy is so creepy that one of the main characters forbids her kids to go to his house. At the end of the book, without comment, the kid is in the house again.
  8. A guy has some siblings in Bowling Green. Later, the guy has no siblings.
  9. And this is the biggest one–Suddenly, everyone knows that the bad guy has a certain constraint. But I never explain how they come to know that.
  10. The narrator gets an important clue from the hymn “Softly and Tenderly” but both of the people who could have left the clue died before the hymn was written.

Also, much like Isaac Franklin, my bad guy was shipped back home for burial in a barrel of whiskey. In modern times, the main characters spend an evening drinking whiskey. I think I’ve created an accidental Chekov’s gun. I mentioned a barrel of whiskey in the past and now, here’s a shit-ton of whiskey–the bottle in the house and the bottles kept stored in the old stable. There is no other conclusion for the reader to draw than that this is the same whiskey. I didn’t intend it that way. But it’s so hilarious and disgusting that I’m totally leaving that as the obvious conclusion to be drawn. Keep chugging on down “Grandpa’s Preserve” folks. Keep chugging on down.

I have some stuff I need to add and, obviously, some plot holes to fix. I feel like it’s a mess of cliched ridiculousness and I hate it, but that’s this stage. I’ll feel better once I like the ending better. It’s not very long, just over 71,000 words, but I imagine it will end up a little longer. I think that’s okay, though. You start to get too long and questions creep in–like why didn’t your main character just go home?

But it has a shape, and that counts for a lot.


The Red-Headed kid accused me of making the tripping jaguar afghan so large that it will require a trailer to deliver it. It’s not that big. It is officially a little over half done.

I’m reading through Ashland and kind of doing a mix of fiddling with displeasing stuff and marking plot holes. Probably, it would just make sense to read through it and mark plot holes first, fix those, and then fiddle with displeasing stuff, but some displeasing stuff can’t wait. I killed off some children, for instance, and I’m about to de-fake-gay someone (a husband claims his wife is a lesbian, so why not have an affair with him? Stupid. Gone.). But some stuff–shouldn’t this be fuller? Why does she immediately jump to this conclusion?–are going to require some more writing and I want to mull it over some more.

I’m never afraid to cut shit. But I try to be conscientious about adding. The lesson I’m trying to take to heart from The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree is to trust in the strength of a simple plot. I hate to use the word “simple” here, because it sounds like a backhanded compliment. But I mean it just as a fact.

I was telling C. the other day that I’d come across this author talking about how much world-building you have to do and, basically, how there’s this tension between how close you are to your characters and how much world-building you need. If you’re sitting right alongside your characters, you’re willing to accept a lot in the world as just given. You’re willing to go along confused at the world, because you trust you understand the character (obviously authors play with this, but we’re making sweeping generalizations). The further removed you get from the particularities of your characters, the more world-building you need in order to keep your reader engaged. In other words, the reader needs something to count on–either the strength of the character POV or the authority of the narrator. One or the other. You don’t want to accidentally weaken that and you don’t need to invest too much in one if you have the other under control.

I think there’s a similar kind of tension in horror writing. Here’s a genre in which a lot of strange things happen, in which people behave in ways that make no sense to them, and which can terrify the reader because they make no sense or a perverse kind of sense to the reader herself. To ask people to keep moving forward into a story that is terrible means you have to have a solid something for them to hold onto. I think, to me, it’s that, at its core, the story is simple. That’s the firm thing your reader can grasp and, in holding on to it, move forward.

Which is not to say that either The Red Tree or Hill House are simple books. Right? That’s the genius of good horror writing.

But, for me, the simple story of Ashland is that it’s about a historian who, while learning a complicated family history, meets the remaining family members and gets to know them, which she comes to regret. That’s it. There doesn’t have to be anything fancier.

1st Draft Done?

I dislike the ending. Not the broad strokes, but some of the finer points. But I had to restart it four times, so I’m not distressed by the thought that I’m going to majorly rework the ending here in a few days.

Then my plan is to read the whole thing and make some notes and then work to get it into a shape I feel I’m ready to share with readers. I have 71,500 words, roughly. I imagine this is quite a bit shorter than my show-the-world draft will end up being since, already, I think I might need a few earlier scenes and, like I said, the ending needs some work. But the shape of the thing is there.



Here we are at 66,000 words. I have come from one weird, ridiculous things and something happens that leads into a tragic, ridiculous thing. I have been struggling with the “something happens” part.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a pain in my toe. See, some idiot dog stepped on my toe and now my toenail is slowly breaking off. Like, way down to the quick. And I guess, as it’s separating, one part of it is poking into the side of my toe in an unpleasant manner. So, I wake up to this new, annoying pain. And I’m walking myself through the logic of how I came to wake up in the middle of the night.

And, like a lightbulb coming on, I am illuminated. The “something happens” has to not just be a brief stop on the train to someplace else. It needs to escalate the tension and the action and show us something about the characters. Which, duh, I know is obvious.

But there is something really helpful about stepping back, when you can’t figure out how to make something work, and just asking yourself, “What would make this worse?”

Sex with Terrible People

The other day, M. was talking about how many of my stories have difficult families at their core. This is true. And maybe more autobiographical than I care to be.

But working on Ashland has me thinking of just how often I send my characters off to have sex with terrible people. The sex is fine. The people are wicked and immoral and, you know, often The Devil. I feel like my real life sex life is the regular mashings of two (or more) awkward but nice people’s bodies together in ways that make gross noises you don’t really notice at the time. I did once or twice fail to seduce a hot libertarian, which is almost like bedding a wicked person (KIDDING, COBLE, KIDDING!), and I don’t normally have fantasies of, like, reanimating Stalin or anything.

But I guess that I think very evil people make room for the people in their sphere of influence to be just a little more evil than they normally would be and sex creates opportunities for people to let their guards down and for them to let want overwhelm good sense. It provides opportunity for otherwise good characters to do terrible shit and make really gross mistakes.