What is it about horror?
We kinda know that monsters aren't real (although walking up the stairs to my house late at night, through the bush, I am absolutely 100% certain there is 'something' lurking just beyond the weak illumination my flashlight provides and I think that by walking with purpose, head down, straight ahead, I will deter it from attacking me) and yet after reading a cracking good horror or ghost story, or watching something spooky on TV, we find ourselves double checking the locks and looking under the bed before we hop in.
It's Halloween month and so thoughts naturally turn towards the genre. Writing something that is really scary is not easy and this common advice applies to all who wish to write it: read lots in the genre and learn from the greats like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Anne Rice but more than that, write stories that have meaning for you, think about the things that scare you - tap into your fears because by golly, what scares you probably scares the bejesus out of someone else too.
Stephen King says there are three types of terror:
"The Gross-out: the sight of a severed head tumbling down a flight of stairs, it's when the lights go out and something green and slimy splatters against your arm.
"The Horror: the unnatural, spiders the size of bears, the dead waking up and walking around, it's when the lights go out and something with claws grabs you by the arm.
"And the last and worse one: Terror, when you come home and notice everything you own had been taken away and replaced by an exact substitute. It's when the lights go out and you feel something behind you, you hear it, you feel its breath against your ear, but when you turn around, there's nothing there...”
My personal favourite is the last one, the terror, where the ordinary everyday suddenly becomes the bizzarre, the terrifying, the absolute unknown-stalker-thing-in-the-dark. To me that's the worst and I think King is a real pro at this - turning clowns into monsters, populating a seemingly normal town with vampires, trapping a woman in a car at the mercy of a nutty dog ... and using ordinary people going about their normal daily business adds to the terror of it because we begin to see that the line between everyday life and the unmentionable horror is very fine indeed.
And remember, a little gem from Neil Gaiman - and this applies to whatever you are writing. Read lots and learn from others but remember to "... start telling stories that only you can tell, because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you ... but you are the only you."
So you may think there is nothing new you can do in the horror genre ... of course there is. You're unique .. your monsters will be too.
A friend of mine had a stressful job for years and said she could only relax by setting up a lounge chair in her back yard on a sunny day and watching the laundry flapping and waving on the line.
I asked her if she had a gin and tonic alongside and she said no, she didn't, it was something about the movement of the clothes drying on the line, the sunshine on her face, and being on a patch of green (a small patch as she lived in the city) that did the trick for her.
My friend added that watching the washing inspired her with ideas for her job at the time, but when she retired, she carried on the laundry- watching to gain inspiration for her romance novels.
How do you get your inspiration for writing? Where does it come from?
Some writers have a 'muse' - a person, animal, object that inspires them. My cat Betsy would like to think she is my muse but unfortunately not. Author Tom Robbins does have one and he says, "I show up in my writing room at approximately 10 A.M. every morning without fail. Sometimes my muse sees fit to join me there and sometimes she doesn't, but she always knows where I'll be. She doesn't need to go hunting in the taverns or on the beach or drag the boulevard looking for me."
Sometimes inspiration to write comes from the simplest of things - perhaps a whiff of perfume as you pass someone on the street, the way the light shimmers on ripples of water at the lake, the taste of chocolate cake and whipped cream ...
Or watching the laundry flap in the breeze.
And there are those days when the muse, or the inspiration, doesn't appear for us. Then it's just a hard slog to get your words done for the day. But as Tom says, at least the muse, or the inspirational beings, know where you are. They don't need to go looking.
They'll find you.
Writing can be opportunistic.
If we're short of time, we grab an opportunity to write when we can - on the bus to work, at the kitchen table after the kids have been dropped at school.
Sometimes we submit a piece of writing to a magazine editor and they say, 'Great, I'll take it!'
We've made our approach at the right time, taking advantage of a window of opportunity before it closes.
And if you're a self employed writer, you're always looking for opportunities to get your writing out there, ways to make some money, become better known, get famous etc etc. You know.
And that can be difficult, a challenge, it goes against the grain because a lot of us writers aren't very entrepreneurial, we haven't worked in the field of PR so we don't know the ropes, and promoting ourselves just doesn't come easily. We'd rather be writing.
If you're well established, you can leave all that promotion stuff to someone else, like an agent or manager. Sigh .... maybe someday.
My attention has been caught recently by a real opportunist, a little creature that sees a chance, and takes it without care for the repercussions, mindful only of what this opportunity can provide for her.
Every time I open the garage door to get the car out, a little black cat rushes in. She goes straight to the woodpile stacked under the workbench and squeezes in way down the back where I cannot reach her. It's cozy back there, snug and dark. When I tell her she shouldn't be in my garage, she just looks at me with those bright, yellow eyes. That's all I see because she's black, and it's dark on top of the woodpile under the bench.
I open the roller door at different times each day and yet there she is, a little black ninja, prowling in the shadows, watching and waiting for the opportunity to make her mad dash for the security and comfort of her hiding place. I don't know where she comes from, or where she lives, but she is an opportunist, a stealthy, secretive watcher. She is sleek, well fed and beautiful, so she belongs to someone.
Before I knew what her deal was, I inadvertently locked her in overnight, twice. She didn't seem in the least bothered, in fact I think she enjoyed the chance for some uninterrupted hibernation. I can only imagine what her owners are thinking. Perhaps she is well known for such antics, and if she's missing a day or two, they think, 'Oh , she's shacked up again in someone's garage.'
Of course she lay up on the hood of the car, the heat from the engine making it a very comfortable perch indeed. Plenty of muddy paw prints to wash off.
So can we learn a lesson from this ninja cat?
Yes - stay vigilant, every day ... and when the door opens, rush in, look for your niche, get in there, hang out in it, even if you get stuck in there for a while, don't panic. Stay sleek and beautiful, and then leave your paw prints on the world for all to see.
It seems there is software for just about anything these days to help you write, punctuate, spell ... it can almost compose a book for you.
Where's the fun in that?
Actually, it's very fun. Yesterday I installed a voice recognition programme called Dragon. Ah, you've heard of it ? I also got a good headset with a very astute microphone that can pick up all the subtle nuances of my extraordinary speech and fabulous words.
Actually my speech and words pale in comparison to the Dragon. What a wonder of tehcnology it is and what jolly good fun! It's like having a little companion inside your computer, one that does what you tell it (I do like giving orders, I admit), comes up with quirky mis-spellings when it doesn't hear you properly, and best of all, you can train it to better recognise what you are saying.
There are very few things that I can boss around, even Betsy the cat makes a point of ignoring everything I ask her to do ("get down off the clean bedspread", "go outside", "eat your dinner"), so it's quite nice to have a silent subservient that does what I tell it, mostly.
It is a work in progress. Dragon and I are shaking each other down. It's learning my way of speaking, and I'm learning its techno approach to dictation and editing. It takes a while but we're going OK.
Why did I get this software? I usually resist these sorts of things, having been brought up in the old writing school of scribbling by hand or onto the computer and then editing and re-writing that way. Anything that might help me with that has usually been met with a scoff and a nose-in-the-air comment like 'There is absolutely no way I'd ever pay good money for any writing software!'
I'm getting old and therefore more practical. Typing for hours excites my arthritis so I have surrendered, given in to technological advancement, and I've done it quietly so that my friends don't now turn to me and say, 'But hey you said you'd never ever ...'
So shhh, don't tell them, we'll never hear the end of it - but I'll tell you on the quiet here, think about getting yourself a Dragon of your own. It's a worthy investment. It's fun having a little dragon-pet in the computer. It works really well, and does not breathe fire and bellow.
Maybe that's what will come next - a Dragon that will belch flames at you if you don't complete your word count target for the day.
You have to find something that you love enough to be able to take risks, jump over the hurdles and break through the brick walls that are always going to be placed in front of you. If you don’t have that kind of feeling for what it is you’re doing, you’ll stop at the first giant hurdle. George Lucas
I ask you - who would sign up for the writing life?
Most days it feels nuts and I often think I'm the only person in the world doing it. And there are hurdles, many many of them, and as Mr. Lucas says, if you don't love it enough to beat down the bricks and leap over like Superman, well, it's a tough road.
I often think one of the hardest things of all about writing is self belief. You have to keep bolstering yourself up every day, because writing is done alone - it's just you - and you don't have a cheer leading squad in the living room encouraging you to keep going, well done, rah rah! You have to find that inner grit, that fortitude to keep going in the midst of all the rejections (they are part of the territory), all of the self doubts (I'm no good at this), the lack of money (can I afford to feed the cat this week? Of course but it means no beer money), the confidence-shaking thoughts of not being able to write anything that anyone will ever want to read (I am going to hide this under a rock).
The list goes on and on.
Fiona Kidman nails it in her memoir Beside the Dark Pool, ‘So you want to be a writer. Well, you must learn to live with yourself, however difficult that might be at times, because you’re on your own in this job; you need to make space in your life, settle on your priorities. A writer’s life is not spent in an ivory tower. Learn to accept that life is full of interruptions. You have children? Yes, of course, many of us do. Write for fifteen minutes a day – it’s better than nothing at all. No, I agree, this is not about craft and style but it’s about how to survive, which is the best I can tell you right now. Can I guarantee this recipe for success? No, of course not. Nothing is certain.’
Writing requires tenacity, true grit, persistence, determination. Be all of these things. You'll get there.
Allowing yourself time and permission to write, and acknowledging that it takes courage to do so, is something we'll talk about in my 'Feel the fear' Workshop on 4 August.
In her fabulous book 'Writing Down the Bones' Natalie Goldberg says,
Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, "I am free to write the worst junk in the world." ... If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.
It took me a long time to understand this, years in fact. I could see no point in sitting down to write if: A. I was not going to produce something worthy of an award and
B. what I wrote would not be published.
I was also waiting for someone to say to me, 'You are A Writer! I give you permission to go forth and write!'
Those things didn't happen back then so, needless to say, I produced very little and was always disappointed. I beat myself up about what I believed to be a lack of talent and my inability to produce anything of note, and so eventually, I gave up and wrote nothing for about five years.
Phew. Thank heavens I got over that crap. In a way, I had to, because I was going ever-so-majorly-mad. I needed to write and create. I wasn't allowing myself to write and that wasn't good for me.
I was not giving myself permission.
I knew I could write but I didn't think it was worth it. It seemed fanciful, impractical, a waste of time because it would not earn me money. Besides, I didn't want to be alone at home, in my bathrobe and slippers, scribbling away in a notebook when everyone else was out doing stuff and having fun. Not that the cat was bad company, it's just that the writing life made me feel out of step with everyone and everything, and that was more important to me for a very long time.
Cue the crisis. It was bound to come, It was inevitable.
The advice I give to writers in my workshops is: 'Allow yourself to write and give yourself permission to write the worst rubbish in the world.'
And only you can do that. As author Dani Shapiro says, If you’re waiting for the green light, the go ahead, the reassuring wand to tap your shoulder and anoint you as a writer, you’d better pull out your thermos and folding chair because you’re going to be waiting for a good long while.
Warm up your creativity, come along to my 'Feel the fear and write it in anyway workshop' Saturday 4 August, Whangaparaoa Library, Auckland and you can bring your own dragon if you like. The Library doesn't mind.
Protect your writing time like a Hungarian Horntail protects its egg. Breathe fire, flap your wings, and bellow loudly.
You know how it is. When you sit down to write, people interrupt you. All you want is to take hold of that precious writing time, the hour that you have every other day to create, enjoy your wordsmithing, and get some work done on that writing project.
Other people in the house know that this is your time. You wrote on the whiteboard thing in the kitchen where everybody scribbles down what's needed at the grocery store and you used block letters in black: I WRITE TUES, FRI and SUN from 4pm - 530pm. DO NOT BOTHER ME.
And yet here they are, yapping at your door like tiny terriers. 'Mum, I need clean underwear.' 'Darling can I bother you for just one sec?' 'Hey flatmate, I need to get in there and grab a book off the shelf.'
You feel unsupported. People are not respecting the one or two hours that you have clearly established as your writing time, a part of your day where you don't want to be disturbed for anything except if the roof is falling in, and even then if you're deep into your work, you may not notice that calamity.
How do you protect your writing time from incursion by those distractors? These people, dogs, telephones, roof falling-ins are making it hard for you to write.
So what do you do?
Get ruthless, get mean, don't give in to those relentless knocks on the door requesting underwear, books, or can-I-bring-you-a-cup-of-tea-and-you-can-tell-me-what-you're-writing-abouts, the scratchings of the cat or dog, or inane requests for books that are really just feeble attempts to attract your attention.
As J.K. Rowling said, "Some people do not seem to grasp that I still have to sit down in peace and write the books, apparently believing that they pop up like mushrooms without my connivance. I must therefore guard the time allotted to writing as a Hungarian Horntail guards its firstborn egg.”
In my workshop, 'Feel the fear and write it anyway' we'll talk about those times when others don't recognise and respect our writing time, and we'll find ways to set the boundaries and guard our fledgling projects.
Join me for a real fire-breathing dragon workshop session. We'll make like Horntails.
Feel the Fear and Write it Anyway! (find out more)
Saturday 4 August 2018, 10.30am - 1.30pm
Whangaparaoa Library, Whangaparaoa, Auckland
In a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway said, "You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless - there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing."
It's a kind of despair and melancholy that I can certainly relate to - being in the thick of a project, having made good, promising progress, and then boof! It all falls to pieces, I have a crisis of confidence, I hear my internal gremlin saying, 'Call yourself a writer? What tripe! This writing is terrible. You'll never finish this load of drivel and why would you?'
Oh and isn't that the worst thing a gremlin can say to you? 'You'll never finish ...'? I find beginnings and endings very challenging, and I agree with wise Ernest when he says you just have to plough on and get there somehow.
Good advice but how do we do that when our confidence takes a hit, we lose our writerly bravado, our ability to sit down and work industriously? When we shrink into our shells, cannot look in the mirror and call ourselves 'a writer' without laughing or crying, cannot sit down in front of our computer or pad of paper without wanting to scream, or get up and have another cup of coffee or wipe the condensation off the window with an old towel or just go and sit alone on a hard wooden chair and say to the universe, 'What's it all for?' in an anguished tone.
Come to the 'feel the fear and write it anyway workshop' and we'll sort this out once and for all.
We'll boost our self confidence, find ways to keep climbing the mountain when the end seems like a distant gorilla in the mist. We'll do better at treating ourselves gently when the despair hits and patting ourselves on the back when we achieve.
What's the difference between 'take' and 'make' when it comes to our writing time?
Take seems to suggest, 'I'm gonna rip off this time, take it away from the time I am supposed to spend fixing dinner.'
Make is more like, 'I'm gonna make time while I'm fixing dinner. When the potatoes are boiling, I will sit down at the kitchen table with my notepad and write.'
Whether you take or make time to write, actually doing the writing is a challenge.
This leads on to one of the most basic questions, one that we'll deal with in my upcoming 'Feel the fear and write it anyway' workshop (which, by the way, is on Saturday 4 August here at my local Whangaparaoa Library, 10.30am - 1.30pm and you can register on my site. Will you take time, or make time to come?!! Either way, I hope to see you there).
That question is: do I really want to become a writer? How committed am I?
This is where that 'take' or 'make' comes in. If you're still undecided about your writing, you might take some time here and there; if you're serious, you'll make time.
Ah, it sounds like a big step, and it can be a fearsome one, fraught with perceived difficulties. The pathway to dreams often is. We hang in there though, we stick with the programme, we march onwards to the goal.
You'll have to come along to the workshop to learn more about overcoming those fears and our inherent ability to procrastinate ('Hmmm ... I don't feel like writing today, I'd rather clean the bathroom...') but I can leave you with a couple of suggestions ...
1. Look in the mirror and say, 'I am a writer.' How does that feel? Start to think of yourself as a writer. When I was younger, I used to see myself in a multi-million dollar beach house, flouncing about, words fluttering around me like butterflies. The reality of my old door-turned-into-a-writing-desk covered with the cat's hair is somewhat different but there's nothing wrong with aiming high.
2. Have a look at your daily schedule and 'make some time' to write; when is it possible? Maybe it's when you're boiling the potatoes, or in bed just before lights out.
So ... call yourself a writer. Do it now. Make time to write.
When I'm reading memoirs by writers they'll often say at what point in their life they knew they wanted to be a writer. Sometimes this revelation happens at an early age, sometimes it doesn't register until the person is 60+.
In some cases, it seems this is a profound revelation, there is no doubt, it's a feeling within, one of surety. Sometimes it's a shocking decision. As the wonderful Ms Maya Angelou says, her decision to write was '...like deciding to jump into a frozen lake.' However it happens, writing is the path, the destiny, no matter how ill-considered, difficult or daunting it may appear at the time.
Did this happen for you?
As a little girl, I was painfully shy. I clung to my Mom's skirts, hiding, and I hated to be out of her sight or away from her at all. I was a blue-eyed, blonde pig-tailed little mutt who cried if the check out operator smiled at me and said, 'Hello' as she rang up Mom's groceries. That shyness clung to me for years.
I couldn't say what I felt because I was too shy, so I wrote it down. I read a lot from a very young age. Books featured highly in our house, and my sister and I both spent hours losing ourselves in their pages. Reading encouraged me to write. The more I wrote, the better I became at expressing my thoughts, feelings, and observations through words, and when I received a pat on the back by a teacher for my 'creative work' , and it was read out in front of the class, well, that was like fuel to my growing rocket boosters.
I'm not embarrassed to admit that yeah, heck yeah, I love the praise that comes from completed work that 'goes public' and people congratulate you and say that your work changed their life, they enjoyed it, or the writing helped them in some way. My very first book launch for Welcome to the Amazon Club was a pinnacle of achievement like none other in my life, and I doubt there's nothing quite like that first celebration, watching people line up to buy your book and then ask you to sign it.
Now that's something.
So if I am asked when did I know I was a writer, I'd have to say, 'I've always done it, it's just what I do. Writing has always been a part of my life. It was my first real and honest form of communication'. I disappoint people when I say I never made a conscious sit-down-at-the-table-and-think-seriously decision about becoming a writer.
Sure, I dreamed about that kind of life, how it would be to write full time and be famous.
When I was working cutting up salad vegetables in a restaurant kitchen, or at the telephone company (what was then Pacific Northwest Bell in Seattle) listening to people complain about their broken phones and exorbitant bills, or driving around as a courier in Atlanta on a mind-blowingly energy-sapping typical Georgia hot summer's day, I did dream of doing what I imagined a writer would do: get up whenever, work for a few hours in a fabulous place with a view, walk in the park after lunch and then enjoy an early dinner and drink with other fabulous artists like myself, and of course fit in book launches, signings and author talks all over the place ... oh yes, I sure did. I just never believed that person could be me, and my present-day reality of the writing life has turned out to be somewhat different. Not a lot of glamour!
But I do have the time and space to give to my writing now, a gift I've denied myself for years because my writing always took second place to earning a living cutting up vegetables, dodging guard dogs while trying to deliver courier packages, or listening to Dr. Tordekon who would call me from his spaceship (actually a telephone both on a Seattle street corner) to regale me with stories of his outer space adventures.
The writing was always there. You could say it has toughed it out, through thick and thin, insistent, wanting and waiting to be heard, and maybe that's how you know you're a writer - you need to be, the feeling never goes away, no matter what you do.
Eventually, you have to pay attention.