On #Feelz

Photo by Gary Fultz on Unsplash

Today I am roaming a strange corner of the Feelscape, having risen to the news that my application to join the Horror Writers Association was accepted. I’ve got a few degrees, which is nice, but I’m also a certified mixologist, a certified hypnotist, and an authorized horror. Expect more from your neighborhood weirdo.

Because the better part of the speculative fiction writing life consists of staring at a monitor and hunting down synonyms for squamous, such recognition is a lovely thing. I’m not in the business of ranking my feelings, but crossing over a professional threshold like HWA membership certainly falls somewhere in the vicinity of publishing a story or finishing a project. These are the writerly highs we can rely on.

But today I’m also enjoying a writerly feel that often strikes me as equally rare: the one that comes from rescuing a draft breaking bad. On my desktop I’ve got a ridiculous and conspicuous array of folders I deperately need to organize (Writing Priorities, Creative Writing, On-Deck Projects, Works in Circulation, Works in Progress, and Pieces to Work Up among them), but somewhere I dare not mention I have a folder that harbors my secret shame–those stories that are finished, by which I mean written from beginning to end, by which I mean gone too far for me to fix. At some point I’ll extract the core idea and begin again, but in the case of such stories the repair work calls for much more than insistent revision, which can sometimes salvage a draft from matters of defective tense, perspective, et cetera. The inhabitants of this Island of Misfit Stories involve some error I made at the outset that conditioned the entire draft, and while I can cannibalize passages for sexy turns of phrase I have to concede that the story in its current form is a lost cause.

So it’s a rare relief–or perhaps even a sign of something like maturity–that this morning I looked back at the first 500 words I’d written for Blood Rites Horror’s For Whom the School Bell Tolls anthology and realized the story in its emergent form wouldn’t get off the ground. There was nothing fundamentally wrong with the prose I’d committed to pixels, but I recognized an early commitment I’d made, exploring the psychology that motivates my main character, was bound to yield a certain kind of epiphany at the end. It would have made for a good story, I think, but not one with the effects I intend. I have the bad habit of trying not to waste prose if I can help it, but scrapping what I had and beginning again with a clearer sense of what I need is not a waste at all. It’s a necessary step for writing the finest story I can imagine.

It’s perhaps not the feel I’d most like to have on a Tuesday, but it’s an entry in the catalog of #feelz I’m learning to respect more and more as my writing life unfolds.

Respecting the Reader

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel, and I plan to leave it in the hopper for a few more weeks so that I can look at it with fresh eyes when I’m between other writing deadlines. The manuscript is far too long, a bit over 115,000 words, but by the time I’m done revising it I expect it will be closer to 95,000.

In On Writing, which is a lovely and valuable guide, Stephen King recommends trimming by about 10% from the first draft to the next. In most cases, however, I find I can trim quite a lot more because of two pronounced tendencies of mine: I tend to use quite a lot of apposition, and I tend to overexplain the narrative state of affairs to the reader. Apposition is something of a stylistic tic for me. It’s never a pure echo or simple repetition, but an effort to add depth and tease out nuance. I’ll certainly snip away some instances of it, save a few words here and there. The real word-count savings will come, however, when I lop off slabs of prose I added to guide the reader.

That’s a hard habit to break. As a professor, part of my job is to reach both seasoned and less experienced readers, so that we can all take a long look at craft. I routinely loop back and recap so that folk can see where we’ve been and where we’re going. As a reader myself I often lean toward mysteries, where I know full well that clues are hidden away in bits of exposition. While it’s perfectly fair game to slip in a single surreptitious hint and never mention it again, I tend to enjoy the reading experience more when missing some critical bread crumb is not the end of my engagement with the game. The authors I like best tend to present the same clues in different guises, so the conclusions their detectives finally draw are foregone, if not obvious.

Deciding what the reader needs, however, always feels to me like finicky business. As the author I always know where things are going, so it can be hard to spot those moments when a little extra connective tissue would do the reader a world of good. At the same time, too many callbacks to passages past can make reading feel like a chore, or–the far greater sin, in my opinion–make the reader feel as though the author doesn’t trust them enough to piece the sequence together.

When I revise this time around I’m going to try to err on the side of respecting the reader, clearing away some of my overgrown attempts to steer them down the main trail. I hope that by doing so I can gently encourage them to look around and enjoy the prose a little more, trusting that the path will still get them to the end, even if they have to cross a few grassy patches. So that’s my little takeaway for the day: when in doubt, cut–but save the file before you do, just in case.

Over Flow

Although it’s not an especially rigorous representation, I find it helpful to describe hypnosis as a flow state. Most folk will nod along at that explanation, and the pleasurable recollection of being in the zone comes with plenty of positive associations a hypnotist can capitalize on. Because suggestibility hinges on the desire and intentions of the hypnotee, an invitation to enter into a flow state of one’s own volition is terribly enticing.

I also like to think of work in terms of rhythms and patterns, which is why I’m a little off this morning. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been chipping away at a writing project I took on to transition out of novel writing, knowing full well that I’d turn back to writing short stories and poems before long. Each morning I’d tuck in to the project, an eight-part sequence, with a rough count of 1000-1500 words in mind. I’d be pleasantly absorbed in an individual entry for an hour or two, drafting uncritically before subjecting whatever I produced to a rough-and-ready edit, and then I’d set it aside. Yesterday I polished off the last draft of the sequence, however, so today I’m in The Lurch. I need to identify the next project and devise the right rhythm for it, then fit it into the big-picture pattern of my work-day, -week, and -month.

The challenge of doing so, I think, is one of the byproducts of These Uncertain Times that we might not be paying enough attention to. While it’s decidedly not the whole of it, I think it’s one of the reasons that the shifting landscape of COVID-19 is so unsettling and disruptive to so many folks. Our plans–especially our longer-term plans–become more fragile, more contingent and it’s hard to establish larger daily or weekly patterns that make flow at the level of minutes or hours possible. Even a normal day like today will involve for me an unwelcome expenditure of mental energy that will keep me from being pleasantly generative. I’d normally be writing right now, but because I have errands on tap my brainspace is churning with pragmatics. In the past few minutes I had to settle the question of shaving (as a smidge of stubble helps to hold my masks in place), the order of operations (which will likely involve going to two stores on the opposite side of town as soon as they open to limit my exposure to humanoids), and the impact on the remainder of my day (which will now involve submissions rather than the drafting of something new). It all seems small, almost trivial, but even a bit of modest jostling early on can keep me from settling into the right frame of mind to get work done over the course of the day. And arrangements I make today will affect the rest of the week in small but substantive ways.

To me it often feels like the difference between Living With and Living Around someone or something. One involves a kind of simple acceptance and welcome, a concession to the way things have become (which is, incidentally, 1000% different from ugly variations on fatalistic “It is what it is” thinking), while the other involves active accommodation, like tiptoeing around a crime scene in a desert, trying to retrace our own footsteps in shifting sands, reluctant to touch anything. The former can take some getting used to, but once we’re done we can add it to the pattern; the latter requires mindfulness each time, and that can be exhausting.

For that reason it’s not a bad idea to be sensibly gentle with ourselves these days, gentle as far as we are able. And to enjoy those moments of flow when they come, even if we can’t easily fit them into the larger rhythms and patterns of our days and ways.

The Power of Prompts

(Image adapted from the beautiful photography of Greg Rakozy over at Unsplash)

Not very long ago a writer on The Twitters asked how folks came unstuck when they found themselves bestookened when they sat down at the keyboard. Plenty of people ventured plenty of good answers, but I thought it would be worthwhile to acknowledge just how powerful prompts can be.

I’m something of a pragmatist these days, which means I do less writing for my own diversion and more purposeful writing to spec. When I speak of responding to prompts, then, I’m not often talking about the ones you find on many writing websites (and please note that I’m not disparaging them, either–they can be incredibly helpful when the brainpan has run dry). I’m talking about the prompts that materialize when anthologies of fiction are being put together and special issues of magazines are being assembled.

It’s worth noting, however, that I’m not especially crass or mercenary about it. I don’t target the ones that are offering the best rate of pay or even the best exposure. Most of the time I need to find a sweet spot, matching an existing impulse to write a new thing (and my idiosyncratic habits of mind) with a destination that seems especially and explicitly receptive to such stuff. When I find something that strikes me as really juicy–take for example this call for submissions-slash-prompt from Clash Books–I really can’t keep those wheels from turning. Even if I can’t commit a story to paper in the time frame proposed by the editors, I almost always come away with a seed worth planting, watering, and watching.

Right now I’m doing a little bit of writing for the good folk over at Superhero Necromancer, over the weekend I’ll put some finished pieces back into circulation, and after that I plan to write some pieces in responses to calls for stories and poems that have inspired me. It’s the sort of engine that requires regular maintenance and, truth be told, a little bit of warming up in colder weather. But once it becomes a pattern and a habit–ideally as a supplement to the ideas we already have rattling around our skulls–then the search for prompts can become an enormously generative part of your creative life.


(Kerry Noonan as Paula, center, from Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives)

If you’re like me–and my apologies if you are–you’ll remember where you were when Paula died.

I came late to Friday the 13th as a franchise, but even as a whelp I understood a few basic truths about the context of Camp Crystal Lake. Foremost among them was the catalyst offered to the viewer in the very beginning, way back when Mrs. Voorhees was our antagonist: negligent counseling will not be tolerated. That premise gets folded in to a wide variety of transgressions, sex and drug use foremost among them, but we are asked again and again to remember that wee Jason Voorhees died because those entrusted with his welfare were not paying attention.

It’s perhaps for that reason that Part VI felt like such a strange departure–though of course the fact that Jason had been reanimated Frankenstyle might have at least a little to do with it. For at this iteration of the camp we actually had perhaps the most responsible counselor the place would ever see: Paula, pictured above. And what becomes of her? She is murdered, and while most of the murdering occurs offscreen (save for a moment when her mostly- or wholly-dead self is chucked through a window and hauled back in), the aftermath suggests that Jason went a little wild with the killing, even for him. Most of the other deaths in the film are forthright affairs–efficient stabbings, skewerings, beheadings–but I remember seeing the entire interior of Paula’s cabin painted with her blood and wondering what was up. What made Jason single her out for the bonus round? The answer, I believe, is a bucket of nothing: it simply makes for a more spectacular reveal than just another dead body in a film that would see a dozen.

Murder–and I hope it goes without saying–is not a top-shelf problem-solving strategy. But in horror it often gets doled out in ethical proportion: those who deserve the worst fates typically get them, often in an ironic way that lays bare their awfulness. Part VI, however, seems to set aside that ethos, indulging in murder without much reference to that artificial–and I would say artful–standard. A little while after Paula is killed a kindly police officer dies right after trying to comfort an actual camper. So it seems pretty clear that we’re moving toward a new ethos, one that’s meant to offer the audience a different kind of satisfaction. And I’m not sure I’ll ever find it satisfying.

I still watch horror movies when I can (my partner isn’t a fan, so I sneak them in when she’s otherwise engaged), but I find that more and more films lean on a more elusive ethical vision of death that, while perhaps more realistic, seems far less poignant and meaningful. And there are some I find downright nihilistic; those I simply won’t watch. As a viewer I still need something of an ethical vision, even if it’s not a positive or redemptive one. If the point is that people die because people die–and if the writer and director seem to reserve especially cruel punishment for those who try to be good, or caring, or helpful–then I feel I might have better served by a book or a movie with something more substantive to say.

The Itch

(From the work of Geya Shvecova, who I came across while following the fascinating Twitter feed of Concinnus.)

I’m preparing to teach ENG 201 this spring, which serves as an introduction to more sophisticated kinds of researched reasoning and writing. It’s a challenging course for many students, in part because it asks them to stray from some of the strategies that they’ve been encouraged to depend on in high school and that still remain viable in ENG 101. It can also make for a difficult shift in perspective adoption. Some students intuitively feel the needs of the reader given their own reading needs, so urging them to give their audience something unfamiliar or unexpected that will elicit more serious attention is an easy sell. Some students, however, will understandably want to stick to well-mapped paths in terms of both their structural designs as well as their subject matter. And whether I like it or not, when it comes time for me to evaluate their work it’s virtually impossible to set aside the comparative tendency. Give me five essays on What I Did Last Summer and I’ll inevitably have preferences that bear on my response to the individual members of the set.

As a reader I find that my eye travels far too quickly these days. Efficient skimming comes with the gig, and when I chew on the news each day I generally know when I can breeze through some background information, some exposition, or some referential scaffolding. When I watch TV mysteries I generally know when I can check my phone as the director gets some establishing shots of the English countryside or offers a glimpse into the detective’s domestic life to offer comic relief; in horror movies I generally know when I can fast forward while a director stages some conventional suspense. Getting readers and viewers to slow down and really pay attention, especially those with extensive experience in a given genre, requires a little tactical disorientation. It’s a bit of a paradox: I think most readers want to feel both composed and discomposed, to feel at least a little uncertainty during the journey.

I liken it to an itch we need scratched, though in most cases we’d rather not be gouged or raked by claws in the process. The image above is a good example. My social media diet features at least a few servings of hypnotic imagery each day, but after a while even the most gorgeous moving mandalas can seem a little more ordinary. The wobble in Shvecova’s image caught my eye, however, and I keep scrolling back to give it another look, to consider the effects of the tremor. The same holds true for me in photography: I’ve seen so many framed and centered landscapes that any hint of asymmetry or disorientation occurs as a welcome break. And when it comes to writing just about anything that disrupts the patterns I know is almost guaranteed to engage me more immediately. In short horror fiction, for example, we are taught to look for the hook in the very first line. I’ve seen my fair share of editorial interviews in which that standard is reiterated and reinforced. As a reader I tend to like those stories well enough. The ones I find really compelling, however, often let me know straight away that I shouldn’t be so sure of my footing. I should be wary, a little apprehensive–the writer isn’t going to let me settle in to the readerly rhythms I expect.

I’ve just wrapped up a bunch of professional projects, and I find myself thinking about the itch as I sift through my writing plans for the next few months. Veer too far off the path and editors are apt to set a story aside; stride down the center and the manuscript might well become less memorable, dismissed as something seen before. To my thinking, at least these days, the latter is the less forgivable sin. I like my comfort as much as the next critter, but if I’m taking the time to read for pleasure I want to feel unnerved and unsettled, even if the effect is subliminal, operating at the level of my technical expectations. That comes with the terrible territories, I suppose: the same force that draws us to horror is apt to convince us to walk past the friendly park ranger and trust in the sketchy character who promises us that they know a secret way through the woods.

Ringing in 2022

(adapted from Simon Wilkes at Unsplash)

Here’s an older poem I wrote and posted on another social media site once upon a time. Not a bad fit when looking at the year ahead.

After midnight grab your coat and shoulder a cold
that tugs at you as though it might venture one last
anxious question, the kind blatantly meant to make
you stay for civility’s sake. But now is not
the time for courtesies or deferrals: we must
watch the depleted year yield up its final fires
in refineries behind us, watch the pale plumes
of votive smoke climb like ivy or some serpent
searching for a skin that fits. As we chase down dawn
let us be grateful then for this, our singular skin,
this spirited skin that carries us from the cold
toward a sunrise we’ll wear like the bruises we bear,
this indelible skin on which we’ll inscribe the lines
of each pledge and confession we’re ready to risk,
this forgiving, exquisite, articulate skin
that feels the new year, finds itself marked but unmarred,
and tells us to rise up and risk it again.