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.

Blast From the Past: Another Sign?

Today I received an email from a fellow writer that I’d met four years ago at the Maui Writers Retreat. At first I couldn’t place her name. However, once I perused photos from the trip, it all came back.

I remembered our engaging retreat group and workshop leader Gail Tsukiyama’s supportive feedback. I remembered the suite that one of the other author-instructors donated to S- and I so we could throw a big party. I remembered running into the surf late one night (had I been drinking?) with B-, B- and a few others, only to lose my cool blue glasses — I loved those specs. I remembered the book-signing party for those of us included in an anthology. I remembered hanging out at a surfboard table with umbrella drinks at the end of the day.

Fun times. I don’t know if I’ll be a workshopper in quite that way again.

But the point of this post is that it’s now four years later, and Tanya Parker Mills sent her fellow retreaters an email message about her newly published novel, The Reckoning. It’s available on Amazon.com. Amazon’s “peek” feature should be available soon, but, meanwhile, check out her website for a synopsis. The story takes place in Iraq, and it sounds intriguing.

After reading her email, I thought about Mr. Gould (previous post), pronounced “gold’ not “goold”. Mills, like Gould, opted for self-publishing. She’s using Booksurge, a print-on-demand firm.

I also asked myself: Is there something to be said for gaining a following any way you can and then transitioning to a mainstream publisher later? I don’t know. I’m conflicted, but I applaud Mills’ decision to put her story out there.

Room With a View!

portludlow.jpgHow goes my impulsive and self-imposed writer’s retreat, you ask?

Just what my head doctor ordered! (Not that I have a head doctor.)

I’m up on the Puget Sound at an out-of-season resort area called Port Ludlow. There’s nothing to do here but watch for sea otters playing on the wharf. To the west, the snow-capped Olympics change color throughout the day, and the sun shines from behind a light coastal cloud layer.

As shown in the photo, I rearrange the furniture to suit my writing needs. I also don’t let the cleaning crew in to witness my writer-ly mess.

Am I writing more pages than usual? Today I will. Yesterday was “only” a five-page day because I needed a long nap. I usually go limp within my first 24-hours out of town: major decompression.

What I am doing is the much necessary thinking, pondering, daydreaming; sometimes I need to leave home to give myself room to imagine. New locales inspire me, and at the moment I’m transitioning my head from winding-up the first draft to winding-down the first draft. For me, these are unique mindsets, and I must take care now because I could lose myself in a middle-of-the-novel murky place.

I’m at about 250 pages, so I hope I’m angling toward resolutions by now!

The literary dinner I mentioned on Friday’s post was great fun — more to say on that later.

Back to writing! 

Top Ten List: Early-Warning Signs of Spring

rhodiebuds.jpgThis is a hopeful time of year. The days are noticeably longer and the breezes are gentler souls. It’s too early for crocus, but I still feel spring. Here’s my top ten early-warning signs of spring:

10. Buds on the rhododendrons.

9. Bye-bye to the extra blanket on my bed until next winter.

8. High-end Easter and gardening items (all those seeds!) displayed in my favorite grocery store. Too early for Easter stuff in my opinion, but I appreciate their cheerful colors anyhow.

7.  Open-toed sandals on sale at Macy’s!

6. Strange but good-looking men wandering around my neighbor’s backyard, followed by the delicious scent of mown grass. (Said neighbors are an old couple who need professional help with mowing, tree-trimming, vegetable garden priming, and so on.)

5. Re-emergence of birds: hectoring scrub jays; male Anna’s hummingbird (bright pink helmet) checking out my feeder; red-breasted robins hopping around in search of worms; migrating songbirds twittering through the bushes; a northern flicker (think: giant woodpecker) tap-tap-tapping on my outside walls in the morning.

4. Honking Canada geese heading for their summer feeding grounds.

3. Those cutey Girl Scouts selling their almond rocas and peppermint patties. How could I not buy one (and only one) box?

2. As mentioned a few posts ago, my devil cat going stir crazy with spring fever. For his encore performance, he chewed through the exercise band I use for rotator cuff strengthening. It had been dangling from a little-used door for a year! Thank goodness he’s willing to go outdoors now is all I can say.

AND, my top sign of the coming spring…


1. My spring-fever stir craziness that has me longing to shake up my winter-weary routines and look out on a fresh view while I write. So, tomorrow I leave for an impromptu writers retreat weekend! I’d been thinking about it, but this photo on novelist Susan Wigg’s blog finally compelled me to overcome inertia. The literary dinner is a bonus.

I’m Still Thinking About Dialogue…

In 2002 I participated in my first writers retreat. A fancy one on Maui. I was nervous about going public with myself — scary! — especially because I suspected I’d gotten in over my head with my chosen retreat course — called “Writing from an Idea” — which was all about the process of evolving an initial concept through many phases of story and character development to the point where you can start the first draft. Theoretically, I should have started with the beginner fiction retreat, but I wanted the instructor I wanted, period.

(Sidenote: This retreat also interested me because I’d previously written a novel willy-nilly and ended up with a 600-page first draft — talk about a learning lesson!)

End result: The instructor’s positive feedback — and as a New York Times bestseller she’s no slouch — started me on my slow path toward accepting that I might have talent and toward admitting aloud, “I’m a writer.”

But, lest you think I was riding high on a teacher’s pet wave (hardly), let me get to the point, which is the raw, painful, ego-busting lesson for all newcomers: dealing with critical feedback. As the culmination of our week, our instructor treated us each to an in-depth critical analysis of our imagined novels’ first scenes. After three paragraphs of positive feedback on mine, she hit me with my weakness. You got it: pesky, tricky dialogue!

And here’s the sad truth of it in her words:

Where you’re currently a little weak is in using dialogue well. Here, you run into several difficulties. I get the impression that you’re in a huge hurry to get to the end of the scene and, consequently, you tend to rush things a bit when the characters are speaking. You fall into the jumping conflict trap as a result of this tendency on page four, and the brief spurt of dialogue on page seven suffers from a lack of cohesion. I realize that, as Andrew is a dying man, his discourse might be wobbly and illogical. But art does not imitate life in all circumstances and in these circumstances, each line of dialogue could serve you much better if it’s causally related to the line that goes before it…Generally speaking, if you’re going to shift to another topic like that, you need to interrupt the flow of dialogue with some sort of related action.

(Another sidenote: She also mentioned that in places I went overboard with the figurative language. Oh, my injured ego!)

As you can imagine, I’ve given much thought to dialogue since then. Hopefully I’ve internalized many of her lessons: slow down, don’t jump to conflict without proper build-up, don’t write dialogue as people really talk (as described in last week’s post), strive for clarity and cohesive flow.

Funny thing about that first scene: It’s no longer in the novel! Over many revisions I ended up sprinkling its essence throughout as part of my protagonist’s backstory (Andrew being her father and not a nice guy).