Dig Deep

As a kid, I had a hideous nightmare. Evil incarnate was walking down the hall to my bedroom and I was frozen in fear, unable to move. The creeping dread was so bad, it still counts as one of the worst nightmares of my life. When the evil appeared, it was one of the weirdest red devil creatures I’d ever imagined. It was also wearing sagging baggy pantyhose – horrific, at the time.

Still troubled by it the next day, I described the creepy thing in saggy pantyhose and asked my sister, “What do you think it means?”

With a smirk, she replied, “Satan has skinny legs?”

I nearly laughed myself sick and the haunting dread that had lingered was destroyed for good.

Sometimes I strive to remember it, though. How it felt to be trapped, in terror, not even knowing what the threat was as the dread and horror climbed higher. Capturing that as a writer and trying to induce it in readers is a challenge and a thrill.

Write what you know can include dreams, too. Use everything – dig deep.

The Publishing Option Dilemma

I wanted to be traditionally published and worked for it and courted it for years. They said they didn’t want to work with me because I didn’t have an agent. Once I got an agent, nothing changed, beyond it being two of us getting ignored. The real game seemed to be who do you know. So I self-published. I try to learn the craft as much as I can and write well. I’m still working and still learning.

In the meantime, a traditional publisher (Vintage Books, a division of Random House) put out Fifty Shades of Grey, a writer’s and certainly an editor’s nightmare, and that made me lose faith in the idea that they were the gatekeepers of quality fiction.

These days, small press and self-publish outfits are releasing a lot more quality and less bad drivel than they were over a decade ago.

The lure of traditional publishing is still there for me, but they’ve tarnished their reputation some with their own badly written drivel these days, in my view. I hope to go with a small press next time. If not, self-publish is still there, and I demand high quality writing of myself, so I know it will be the best book I can release. 
Yet, learning the craft of writing well should never stop. I love finding new things to learn to improve.

Ancient City Con III Wraps Up

Jacksonville, Florida’s Hyatt (the one on the river) was once again host to the Ancient City Con for their third annual show. With more space (and hopefully more for next year) it was easy to move around and see and do many things. I don’t get into the table gaming or the video game contests, but many others did, and I know the panels were successful. They also had “Make and Take” projects going on, which are like classes that teach you to make a specific item.

I had some wonderful success with book sales, and most of the dealers I spoke to on one of my shopping rounds reported that they were making good sales, too. I wasn’t surprised, since last year this was the most successful convention for sales as well. However, after the dismal outcome (sales-wise, anyway) of one of my 2009 cons in Orlando, dismal for all of the dealers that is, it was nice to see all that happy commerce going on in Jacksonville.

My panels, “The Pillars of Writing” and “How to Beat Writer’s Block” were very well received, and I had book agent Gary Roen and author William Hatfield on those with me, as well as a few other esteemed authors for either one or both topics.

For the late night panels, we had MovieCrypt.com putting on both the “Vampires, Vampires, Vampires” panel, and the infamous “Occult Showdown” panel, in which the audience picks sides in versus-style match ups and helps “make the case” for how/why their pick would win over their opponent. The coup de grace was the last match: the Blob Vs. the Stuff. As a member of the audience, I was leaning toward favoring the Blob to win. In the end, it came down to a deciding factor of body count: the Blob had wracked up more bodies than the edible Stuff. Another popular one, early on, was Buffy Vs. Anita Blake. Naturally, Buffy won. It’s hard to beat someone who has already died twice and come back swinging both times! As Buffy herself said in one episode while comparing “stuff happens” with her ex, “Did you die?” When he says no, she replies, “I’m gonna win.”

The weather was a bit soggy, the hotel managed to have two waitresses in the bar area at lunch with two conventions in the building, and the Mongolian BBQ place I wanted to revisit is now a Gold’s Gym, but hey – the little Mexican food place at the Landing, Cinco De Mayo, made up for a lot of that. We were three tables worth of people, but it was great having about three waiters hovering and ready to fetch stuff and freshen drinks at any moment. Plus, their food was amazing!

For next year, our suggestion of a separate room for the panels is in the planning. They also want another separate room for showing a schedule of films. I think these plans will greatly enhance the whole experience for Ancient City Con IV.

And to some friends of mine who live in Jacksonville, I’ll call them “The Muses”, it was wonderful to hang out with you all again, ladies, and great to meet those of you who I didn’t know already on Saturday morning. Along with my other friends from Florida, you all made the weekend even better with fun conversation and excellent stories told. I look forward to doing it again next year!

Notes, notes, notes!

I love writing story notes, character notes, etc. When inspiration strikes, but there’s no time to actually start seriously writing a new idea (especially while still promoting the current one) notes are the key to not forgetting details and moods of what was just inspired. This is how most of my book ideas currently exist – in the form of notes. And guess what? At last count, there were thirty-six of them. A few are trilogies, and I’m counting each installment of them for that sum, but that’s a lot of books to cart around in your head. Facts get mixed up, life intrudes, and soon enough, something is lost. So here’s a bit of free advice to all of the writers out there – write copious notes.

Later, you can rework, improve, or even re-envision those notes. Sometimes I end up with a slew of dates at the top of my notes, under the working title of the story. The first will usually state if it came from a dream or not (a detail I like to remember), and after that the dates are when major edits/adds/fixes were done. My zombie story (possibly a trilogy?) just got a major overhaul to its notes this week. The result? Excitement. It is now going to be vastly cooler than it was. I’d love to get further in actually writing it (as of now only part of chapter one is completed) but the notes will keep it warm until I can get back to it – without a bit of flavor or nuance being lost in the waiting.

Spooky Empire Convention: A Smashing Success!

I’ve had a few weekends to recouperate (not that I’ve slowed down much since) but I am happy to report that the Spooky Empire Convention went stunningly well. I manned three panel discussions, with my book agent and friend Gary Roen being the official moderator for the first two, and yours truly taking the reins for the last panel on Sunday. We had very good audience turn out for all of the panels, and I always love seeing more people who are interested in writing.

The Zombie Walk went well on Friday, and while I never heard an official count, it looked to me like fewer zombies than last year, but the quality was better, including the “in character” shuffle back to the hotel from TGI Fridays.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to get to everything that went on, and I missed the undoubtedly excellent Hellraiser panel, due to them being too close to one of my own. I did catch most of the Phantasm panel with Angus Scrimm and Michael Baldwin, and it was a lot of fun. Mr. Scrimm was a hoot! They were both gracious enough later to grant me interviews, as well.

Two groups I had not heard of before and now can recommend heartily are the Ghouligans (video surfer-monsters humor) and the southern rock band with a twist known as Ghoultown. Ghoultown are from Texas, too, which amused me. I think I was the only person from Texas on their mailing list.

The dealer’s room was jumping and full of awesome goodies, many of which I dragged home with me, and the convention as a whole was primely put together. Hats off to Pete M. and his staff for a job well done!

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention how wonderful all of the guests were. I’m already devoted to the Cenobites and the lovely Ashley Laurence, and it was an honor to finally meet Angus Scrimm, Malcolm McDowell, Elvira, Michael Berryman, and all of the others, too.

The VIP party on Saturday night was a lot of fun, as it was last year. I met some great folks, and got to see my friends from last year, as well. Hanging out with friends, snapping some photos, and listening to some entertaining karoke numbers for a bit, made for a splendid evening.

I didn’t get to see Voltaire’s concert (I’m not sure it happened at all) but I did catch Ghoultown’s show, even though they got delayed at first from the time they were scheduled to start. The concerts seemed to be the only part with a little bit of trouble, especially in the arc lighting during the band ahead of Ghoultown. Someone kept sending the arc lighting right into the eyes of the crowd, and the sound wasn’t as clear all the way through as it could have been. Ghoultown and especially their trumpet player more than made up for it, though. I promply bought three of their CDs the next morning.

Overall, this is still my favorite convention, and the best horror convention I’ve been to yet. High marks!

Training Your Muse: Prose (plus, fighting writer's block)

Training the muse of prose, whether fiction or non-fiction, is a lot trickier than the poetry muse. Now and then, no matter how long she’s spent in harness (if you’ll allow me an equestrian analogy) she will pick up a weapon called writer’s block and chunk it at the back of your head. That having been said, let’s discuss ways to train the prose muse. Again, as with poetry, you have to find your own method; you’re free to try mine, but it may not work the same for someone else.

Generally, I train my prose muse the same way I trained her sister: by getting into character and letting the story flow from that character. I liken it to being an actor – you research for the role, practice it, and eventually perfect it. Once you can slip effortlessly into that role, you can act the part (or write the story) seamlessly.

Different readers will tell you they prefer plot to drive a story, but most I’ve met fall in love with the books that are character driven. If you love a character, you’ll accompany him/her/it through any plot the writer throws at them. Take a fave of mine for example, Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Over the course of seven seasons, Buffy and her friends have had a LOT happen to them. Some episodes are favorites, others you can take or leave, but what makes you sit through the ho-hum ones? The characters you love.

Taking all of that into account, why not use your characters to combat writer’s block? Some writers make up character sheets (similar to the roleplaying game concept) and these can be a valuable tool and resource, for many reasons. They can also help fight writer’s block.

Step back. Take a deep breath. Now, instead of fighting it, don’t worry about writing the story you’re stuck on. Think about your characters. Focus on the main character and maybe a secondary one or two. Put yourself in their shoes (you invented their shoes, so this should be easier than it sounds) and imagine being that person for a while. After a time, you’ll find that inspiration and drive start to creep back in, edging writer’s block out.

The more stubborn muse, with the bigger writer’s block rock to your head, might require more effort or completely different methods. Try looking at the stresses in your life, basic health issues, etc. If something is lacking or off in your life, it can easily affect your writing, or your ability to be motivated to write at all. Fix that sleep-depravation schedule a bit, rest a couple of days if you’re sick, talk to a friend about problems you’re having trouble sorting out. Once these issues are balanced better, it’s easier to fight off or end writer’s block.

Another trick is the old “bait and switch”. Stuck on your Sci-Fi story? Set it down for a bit and pick up your Adventure tale. I always have more than one thing going precisely so I can do this method. It works for writer’s block, and for basic boredom if you’ve been at one story too long. Instead of stopping your writing habits, switch to another project. If you stop writing regularly because you’re a bit bored with one story, you may find you’ve stopped writing more often than you planned. This is a lot worse than writer’s block, folks. Writer’s block is when you feel stuck; but sufferers of it want it gone, because they want to write. This other malady is incidious, and it can steal years from your plans to finish a novel before you are even aware of it.

One last point on the subject of training your muse: if you want a character-driven story, you eventually need to hand the steering wheel to your characters. Instead of writing it all as YOU, work yourself into the skin of your characters and make your muse conform to that person or critter’s point of view. Slipping into that other skin can help you to jump into the story, leap over the block, and dash off into the far reaches of plot.

Training Your Muse: Poetry

Most people will tell you the old joke: you can’t write poetry unless you’re miserable. Not good poetry, anyway. I used to agree years ago, but that was before I trained my muse. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a step-by-step guide to share with you, and in any case that wouldn’t really work. Everyone is different, so you have to sort out your own training methods. What I can do is tell you how I arrived at having my own well-trained poetry muse.

Way back when, I wrote some cool poetry while I was miserable. When I was happy, though, it just didn’t seem to flow. The real point is, it didn’t flow because I was too busy being happy to think about stopping to write a poem. That Doug Stone song hits the nail on the head with the lyric, “I was too busy being in love.” Misery is a whole different ball of wax. You’ve heard the saying, “Misery loves company”? I’m sure it does, but another saying should be, “Misery loves poetry”. Whether you are genuinely miserable for a specific non-love reason, or due to love directly (lost love, unrequited love, etc) poetry doesn’t sit around and wait for you to write it; it nearly crashes out from head and heart, to fingers, to pen, to paper (or keyboard to screen).

The problem arrived years later when I began writing my novel, Grimmie. In the grand tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien, I wanted poetry in my book. Like my favorite novel, Watership Down by Richard Adams (read 35 1/2 times to date) I wanted that poetry to be at the start of each chapter. Adams actually has quotes at the chapter beginnings, but you get the idea. My first thought after I decided I wanted my chapters this way was, “How do I write these poems? I’m happy.” LOL. To make it an even bigger challenge, I wanted each poem to have clues to things that would turn up either in that chapter or at some point in the future.

It came down to discipline in the end: I sent my muse to poetry boot camp. First, I had to get into the main character’s head. Then I focused on the mood, theme, direction, or metaphor I wanted the poem to have. Moving into that character’s POV, just like I do while writing him, I just started slapping those words down. I usually let them all come tumbling out and then look them over and perhaps tweak them later. Either way, the real key, for me, is to put myself in the main character’s shoes and let fly.

At first it was a bit weird, but the more I did it, the easier it got and the better the poetry turned out. Oddly enough, the poems at the chapter beginnings of Grimmie sound more third person, in spite of the fact that when Corwin Grimm is “on deck”, so to speak, the book is in first person. One or two sound like they are first person, but most of them don’t. It gives them all a bit of mystery, in a way, though, instead of sounding like Corwin is reading poetry “at you”.

In any event, this technique now works wonders for me. At the drop of a hat, I can pen a poem that fits my angle. It took work, though – the muse of poetry was not easy to train by any means. For instance, it is still difficult to write personal poetry when I’m happy. God forbid I should try to write good love poetry while happy. I can usually pull off decent erotic poetry, but the good swarmy/sweet/sticky variety more often comes out sounding like something a monkey penned with his feet using a broken crayon. Essentially, I don’t worry about that, as I’m not wild about happy love poetry anyway. The only good love poetry (in my opinion) is the unrequited sort, with that sharp angst twist in it, or the straight-up miserable sort. Mind you, I’m talking about MY poetry writing. You may have the talent to write beautiful and touching happy love poetry. I don’t. And that’s okay; because personally I’d rather be “in the moment” while happy. That way, you don’t miss anything. Poetry, by its very nature, is about reflection – and it’s difficult to reflect and be in the moment at the same time!

However, I am deliriously happy that this only applies to the personal poetry. Poems I write for “work” (if you can call doing what you love work) can be anything I want them to be now, with my highly trained muse. So if you’re tired of waiting until you’re miserable to craft good poetry, send that muse to school! Find out what works for you and run with it. Once you hit your stride and figure out your key, poetry can actually become fun again…whether it’s a happy poem or not.