Strange Things

One thing about “Ashland” is that, even as I’m daydreaming about it, I feel like it must have been done a hundred times. A million. Everything seems so cliched. Of course X. Which lead to y.

Which is why it keeps weirding me out that I can’t find any Southern haunted house stories.

It’s my favorite grad school phrase! “Always already!” It seems like there always already had to be a story like this.

Its absence is eternally confusing to me.

I Have Long-Standing Artistic Concerns

This morning, I was rifling through my documents folder to see if I had “stupidly” made a file containing my gmail password. I had not. But I did find a file entitled “What makes things scary?” It was pre-A City of Ghosts.

Maybe I’m not any better at figuring it out.

I’m really excited about The Wolf’s Bane. My head says to be cautious and to expect at least one more disaster. My heart says, “A month, a month. It’s out in a month!”

It’s even getting a real review, which I am completely nervous about.

The Grid

I started a grid for “Ashland.” A spreadsheet that maps out each characters’ crises and the things leading up to them. I’m going on a model of “build-up,” “scary thing,” “crisis,” “new circumstance,” with each character experiencing roughly four crises of various intensity. This should, I think, give me a lot of scary things happening.

It already gave me a good idea of the kinds of things that need to happen in the middle of the novel.

Plus, my goal is not to have everyone hitting their plot points at the same time, but to make sure that they’re hitting them–that they have their own narrative arcs and aren’t just interactive scenery for the main character.

The thing I’d like to figure out is how to leave them in the grid so I can be sure I like each character’s arc, while also somehow ordering them so that I can see what has to happen in what order. Like, the church lady can’t come to the house to help one character until the other character goes to church and meets her.

I’m thinking about some kind of color coding, I guess? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll just number things?

Anyway, the thing that I’m still wrestling with is how to plot to ratchet up the creepiness.

I don’t really know what I’m doing, I guess I what I’m trying to say.

Fallen

I watched Fallen this weekend, which I hadn’t seen in a million years and, wow, is that a well put-together story. One thing they do a really good job of is suggesting bigger stories that you’re only seeing a part of. We don’t know why Jonesy is so loyal to Hobbes, but we see that he’s loyal to and protective of him. We infer there’s some big backstory. I also felt like, this time through it, something had happened to Art–that he hadn’t always been disabled, but that his situation, his frailty, an absence of a wife, that he had custody of his son and that his son was not utterly surprised when he died, seemed to suggest something had happened to him. A car accident maybe? I don’t know. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

And I felt like they laid a lot of groundwork to suggest that the kid might have some kind of story of his own later.

It’s something to remember–that you don’t always have to explain what your characters think is normal and not worth commenting on.

Perennials, I Roll My Eyes

I think the Isaac Franklin thing is in good shape. As is the thing for the Scene.

I have planted a climbing rose and some foxgloves and planted all my seeds. I chased the dog around and now I am exhausted. Which is good because I haven’t been sleeping well this week.

So, I think this means I’m justified spending the evening listening to podcasts and working on my afghan. I was booking along on it and then I got distracted by all this writing stuff.

I’m giving the stripey afghan to S. on Sunday and I am both excited and a little bummed. I don’t know what exactly it is about that afghan, but it’s a favorite. I think both because it was super easy and looks super great. I will miss you, stripey afghan! But you go to a place with a porch and some still cool evenings ahead.

You know, I just realized that, if I had had coffee with a friend this morning, I would have spent my day doing all my favorite things.

The Zoo

This morning, Lesley and I had a meeting with the Zoo about our kids’ book. It went really well and they seem really excited. So, I’m excited. And I was glad to get the chance to talk to Lesley about her art and her creative process. She was telling me that, sometimes, before she starts a piece, she writes a statement of intent so that she feels like she opening herself up to the feelings she wants the work to have and opening herself up to the power of coincidence and unintended things.

I’m pretty eager to think about that in terms of my own work. And she said such kind things about The Wolf’s Bane and it made me excited for it to finally get out in the world.

Things Happening

1. As previously noted, The Wolf’s Bane is out May 22nd and there will be some kind of party and I would love to see you there.

2. I also have a story in this anthology, and though I don’t know a lot of people with $100 to throw around, if you are and this looks like fun, here you go.

3. I have a big non-fiction thing in the works. I just found out last night that my pitch was accepted and it’s due next Wednesday. I am really excited and also kind of want to throw up. But woo!

Notecards

I have purchased some notecards, so that I can plot and arrange my plot and rearrange it.

I think I told y’all about the time we went to Rhode Island and I woke up because I hear someone calling my name and then I heard a clock strike 2, but there was no clock and the room the person was calling me from was just an old boiler room?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how unscary that was while it was happening. Nothing seemed unusual or out of the ordinary. It was only upon learning that there was no clock, no person, that it became unsettling.

So, somehow reflection has to be involved for a ghost to work, I think. Somehow you have to know things are out of the ordinary. Otherwise, how would you ever know it was a ghost?

Simple

I’ve been thinking a lot about The Haunting of Hill House and The Red Tree and what strikes me in both is that the stories are simple. Not simple in the sense of “stupid” or “easy” but in the sense that they’re not convoluted. People arrive, explore, discover, and are surprised.

I’ve been sitting around mulling over my characters, developing elaborate histories and convoluted plots. But I think this is the wrong way to go. I need something simple myself. In a narrative where you’re using confusion as a plot device in order to build discomfort, you don’t want your readers to be inadvertently confused.

Anyway, I’m waiting to hear back about a big non-fiction piece. If I have to work on that after Easter, I won’t be starting on this. If not, then I’m going to get on this.

Two Things

“Horror is not about the suffering of innocents; it’s about sinners being devoured.”–Noah Berlatsky
“No, the menace of the supernatural is that it attacks where modern minds are weakest, where we have abandoned our protective armor of superstition and have no substitute defense.”–Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

The Wolf’s Bane

So, here’s what I know.

The release date is May 22, 2015.

There will be 30 handcrafted books available for $300 and 300 somewhat regular paperbacks available for $30.

In-town people can buy them from East Side Story. Out of town people, well, I don’t know yet, but I’m sure there will be a way.

Big News! Project X Has a Pub Date!

May 22, 2015, which is also my birthday. Mark your calendars. There will be a party and you will be able to buy the book.

(If this ends up not being true, you can still have a good time pitching in to bail me out of jail.)

The Wolf’s Bane.

The cursed book may actually see the light of day.

Finally.

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.