WRITING CREEPY | A Ghost Story Weekend

Come to find out that writing creepy is hard! I’d arrived at Ghost Story Weekend without an idea, thinking no biggie, something will come, it always does. On Friday night when most of the other 12 writers at the retreat tapped away, tap-tap-tap, on their short stories, and with only 24 hours to write a first draft, I found myself doing the Jack Nicholson:

“…I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to write. Image of a girl walking her dog…so stupid with no other character on the scene. But maybe the people in the houses — the people she sees through the windows are the creep-factors. Stepford-wife-like neighborhoods are creepy. So what would this girl be — blah! I don’t have an idea I don’t know what to write I don’t know what to write…”

About half of us sat in the haunted boathouse while the others wrote in the bungalows. When we’d met with our hostess, novelist Elizabeth Engstrom, earlier in the evening, I’d noticed that most of my fellow crazy people looked confident. Even the few who’d arrived without a story idea looked confident that they’d find and finish their stories. For some reason, I was stuck on the word “creepy.”

I wasn’t in a creepy mood. I was having too much fun reunionizing and meeting people, enjoying the unusually warm weather, relishing the time away from my moronic downstairs neighbors, and drinking red wine. If anything, I was in a sarcastic mood. I kept hearing a flippant little first-person voice poking fun at everything ghostly.

But…I was also torturing myself in classic writerly fashion: I must give creepy a try.

Saturday dawned cloudy with wind enough to stir Siltcoos Lake and set the boathouse to swaying. I had nothing. No revelations in the night despite the index cards and pen sitting next to my pillow. EFF-this, I thought, I’m going with my sarcastic voice. As long as my story contains some species of ghostly phenomena, I’m golden.

Then, what do you know, I had a blast writing my story. Now my desperation was all about finishing the draft by 6:00 p.m. that evening. I started with a voice and a setting — plus something to poke fun at: ghost hunters. Didn’t know where it was going, how to end it, or what the point of the whole thing was. After awhile, I didn’t care, and, in the end, I even managed a little creepiness.

Lessons learned or relearned?

1. Jump in, the story will follow. Sometimes it’s best not to think too hard about it.

2. Go with the voice in my head that’s yelling the loudest.

3. Creepiness comes when you least expect it.

Making a Wish

dandelionsMy March Madness c’est fini, kaput, done for, finished, outta-here, and this morning I wished on a dandelion: Please, no more months like that. I haven’t thrown so many tantrums and broken into so many tears since I was a teenager. I’m on a high learning curve — call it trial by fire — with this new day-job gig I’ve got going. It’s completely insane, in fact. At one point, I left a screaming vent message on a friend’s voicemail, and she laughed so hard she had to share it with her workmates. (I don’t vent often; I’m the quiet sort.)

It’s not that I’m not still working like crazy, but I decided to switch off my tendency to take ownership. This is NOT my project; I’m just a pion writer, and if others don’t know what they’re doing, it’s not up to ME to instruct them, especially since I barely know what I’m doing as it is. Right? Right.

Also, yesterday I went to brunch with a couple of writer friends. Elizabeth Engstrom and Nancy Boutin — actually, I was meeting her for the first time. I haven’t felt like a fictionista for many weeks and talking with them helped me clear my head.  In reality, I hardly spoke — I was still so exhausted — but I left feeling better anyhow. I’ve gotta remember that I’m working the other stuff to pay the bills, that’s all.

So now, I’m about to spend the afternoon with my neglected manuscript. This work feels like a soul-sigh.

Halloween Reading Challenge

(For those reading this looking for my free-for-all Friday post: Please check back on Saturday!)

Halloween is here, and I forgot that I’d signed up for a reading challenge called RIP III. It’s good bookish fun through Halloween, and I joined in because I had the perfect book: Elizabeth Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles.

I hadn’t read a spooky book in awhile, so this was perfect.

Yet, I do have a history with scary fiction. I read my first Stephen King when I was 14, and thereafter spent the rest of adolescence terrifying myself.

I just had a memory: My mother, who was never one to give gifts outside birthday and Christmas, enters my room one night. Picture me cuddled on my waterbed (because I was diagnosed with scoliosis, I swear!) perhaps reading “The Exorcist” or the latest Peter Straub. “I thought you might like to give this book a try,” she says, and hands me a collection of humorous short stories. Humor?!?! I was so far from humor you might as well have nominated me poster-girl for hormonally induced angst, moodiness, and depression!

So, yes, I have a history with the creepy, but I don’t read them much anymore. I’m glad to say that Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles led me through her haunting northwoods universe with a ton of artistry and no gratuitous shlock.

The creepy factor is enhanced by her minimalist writing style. Disappearing children, killer wax statues, murderers, and mermaids inhabit her universe with the same quiet poise as her grieving mothers and college students. It’s all the same reality, and this is a big reason for the creep-factor.

As the cover states, The Northwoods Chronicles is a “novel in stories.” I liked meeting and re-meeting her characters in different contexts. I also liked that she preferred ambiguity over perfect plot bows.

I’ve been interested in the concept of linked short stories for awhile. Reading Engstrom’s novel in stories, I realized that she made it look easy. The secret, as she told me, is to create a full-fledged universe. Her universe fascinates.

(Okay, writing this in front of the telly, Thursday night. Just flipped the channel and found “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Talk about memories: midnight showings, yes, during high school. You’re probably not surprised to know that San Francisco loved its Rocky Horror midnight showings!)

RIP III: Spooky Reading

Saw this on Literate Kitten’s blog: There’s a reading challenge in process called RIP III. It’s good bookish fun through Halloween, and I decided to join in because I have the perfect book: Elizabeth Engstrom’s The Northwoods Chronicles.

I admit that my reason for joining an online reading challenge is to pass the word along about her newly published novel. Anything to help a friend!!!

I also look forward to reading the book reviews from the other participants. They’ll be posted here.

Here’s the starred Publisher’s Weekly review to entice your interest:

“Dark fantasy writer Engstrom (Black Leather) starts on familiar ground, but rapidly turns this ‘novel in stories’ into a genre-blending exploration of love, aging, grief and sacrifice. In Vargas County, children under 12 occasionally vanish, but the locals have long viewed this as a tithe taken by the town in exchange for the happiness of the other residents. This theme is explored directly in stories like ‘House Odds,’ in which real estate agent Julia has to decide if her grandchildren would be in greater danger in town or away with their drunken father. Other tales merely use the disappearances as a backdrop, such as ‘Skytouch Fever,’ in which aging Sadie Katherine is forced to choose between her steadfast beau and a rakish visitor, and the wittily ironic thriller ‘One Quiet Evening in the Wax Museum.’ Fast-paced, melancholy and beautiful, the overarching narrative binds a collection of good stories into a superb if unconventional novel.”

A Literary Evening Followed by a Realization

What could be better than sleeping in a guest room laden with my hostess’s novels?

Attending said hostess’s book party and then watching the first presidential debate with her and her gang afterwards. (Talk about hitting my pillow that night with a full brain!)

I met Elizabeth Engstrom over the course of four Maui Writers Retreats, but, interestingly, we didn’t become friends until after the fourth retreat. And I can say that: “friend”. Which is cool, because she’s fun, smart, and full of insight about the biz. In fact, over the course of dogwalking and lunching on Saturday, I received many a food for thought regarding literary-agent relations, self-publishing, and possible next steps. I count myself lucky.

One lesson: It’s okay to disagree with our agents. They aren’t always correct. Elizabeth told me a story about a reputable agent who counseled a client that, as a career choice, her latest novel wasn’t the way to go at that time. She disagreed. She sold it on her own and ended up with great reviews.

(And speaking of great reviews, Elizabeth’s latest, The Northwoods Chronicles, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly! It should be a creepy-fun-great read. It’s a novel in linked short stories, which I find doubly intriguing.)

As Elizabeth and I continued talking about agents, I realized that I fear being dumped by mine. As a result, I don’t talk to my agent enough, as if by doing so I’ll come off as too bothersome or assertive or demanding. However, I’m allowed to bounce ideas off her, ask for advice and help, tell her what I really think, disagree with her. Right? Right.

And if she decides she doesn’t want to work with me anymore? I find another agent. Elizabeth bouyed me up with her certitude: I’ll land other agents as necessary. Right? Right.

Surprise Mail

Yesterday brought a surprise Priority Mail, and I’m so far into my break that I racked my brain for a full minute to recall the sender: Tekno-Books, the company that’s packaging the anthology (as mentioned here). What a welcome jerk back to my best reality: Yes, I’m a fictionista! Awesome!

The package contained the galley proofs for my story, plus my author bio and the table of contents. Need to send corrections back by the 20th. I question my author bio now — I want to change it up completely. I’ll need to ask someone for advice.

Also, I noticed that my story comes in last. In publishing parlance, it “anchors” the anthology. I know from previous experience that publishers like to end their anthologies on a strong note, so I was pleased with myself.

However (and isn’t there always one of these?), I quickly talked myself out of feeling pleased because I wasn’t 100% sure all publishers use this strategy. In our culture coming in last is bad. Failure! And since I might be a tiny bit competitive…well…let’s just say I let that downer thought anchor itself for one minute too long.

Another “however”: My friend Liz, who also wrote a story for the anthology, sent me a woo-hoo message this morning, congratulating me on my final position in the anthology. Whew, okay then!

I find it strange that I sometimes need a wise voice from the outside to confirm what I already know below the surface of my doubts and worries. I’m not the only one like this, right? I hope?

(P.S. Now I’m thrilled to be in last position! Validation: I wrote a worthy story!)

Wanna Play Tag? Passing Along a Meme

Goofball Friday. I’m initiating a game of tag. I got wind of it from writer Joelle Anthony’s blog. The players I saw on Anthony’s thread seemed pretty peppy, which might help with this kind of game. I’m not so peppy, but no matter. An experiment!

Here’s how it goes:

1. These rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.
3. At the end of the post, the player then tags 3-5 people and posts their names (links to blogs/sites), then goes to their blogs and leaves them each a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read the player’s blog.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer; also, let readers know who tagged you.

What were you doing ten years ago?

9-to-5ing it as a technical writer at a high-tech company. Living in sin with my long-haired potter boyfriend and his 12-year-old son in a ramshackle 1960’s ranch house. Transitioning from writing only short stories to novels. Bursting into tears because of a mean-spirited and useless critique by a local Famous Novelist during his workshop (first stab at first novel) and then not writing for months afterwards.

What are five things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order):

1. Try out a new workout class.
2. Talk a friend into seeing the new Indiana Jones movie with me this weekend.
3. Return a summer top that I bought last week — a what-was-I-thinking? purchase.
4. Make sense of my index cards: arrange scene ideas in a semblance of a plot outline for the rest of the novel.
5. Drop off unneeded work clothes at a favorite neighborhood clothing boutique (for donation to Dress for Success) in exchange for a 20%-off coupon.

What are some snacks you enjoy?

A nice cheese with a nice bread (and wine)
Sandwiches (which is to say lunch late in the afternoon)
Cookies dipped in milk
Granola cereal

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

Continue writing fiction
Travel everywhere
Buy my dream house and a dog (maybe a pug) to go with it
Take my family on luxury vacation to Hawaii
Because I’m only semi-domesticated, semi-organized: Hire all kinds of help for all kinds of chores

What are three of your bad habits?

Late-night munchies
Reading until WAY too late
What are five places where you have lived?

Sao Paulo, Brazil
Quito, Ecuador
New York, New York
Mill Valley then Berkeley, California
Portland, Oregon

What are five jobs you have had?

Waitress in my father’s yummilicious restaurant
Financial analyst in multinational corporations (Ecuador, Brazil)
Book publishing editorial schlub (NYC)
Technical writer

What 3-5 people do you want to tag? (anybody else who wants to play)

Two who might participate, one who doesn’t know me but I like her blog, and one outlandish possibility (mostly because male, but he’s kinda funny so I’m curious what he’d write):

Elizabeth Engstrom
Susan Wiggs
Patry Francis
Bob Mayer