I am an old sea witch

My brother gave me a box of totems for Christmas. I strung most of them together with white crochet thread and hung them in my office and a few of the others are resting under my monitor and the last, a small white vertebrae picked clean by fish, is in the pocket of my winter jacket and it will live there until spring. He also gave me a story about collecting magic things that will one day be useful for stories.

Already it has started working. I found the monsters in my novel riddled with wood-beetle holes worn smooth like the driftwood lung that is hanging behind me, and they are made of void-stuff now, like the physical manifestation of dementia, because that is what scares me most and couldn’t bear to write a monster that doesn’t scare me.

I am afraid of many things, but I am more inclined to identify with fictional monsters than I am to fear them. Monsters are too human now. And the unknown is an unreliable source of fear because I faithfully believe in the spirit of inquiry and its endless capacity to carry us forward. What scares me are the Hattivatti and the Grokes. The familiar entities appear consistently, reliably, and are impossible to understand because their very nature is antithetical to humanity.

Moomintroll encounters the Groke. -Tove Jansson

It is remarkable that a box of totems that my brother collected have already taken hold in my fiction. I carry a totem to have a focus when my head is out of sorts; it is an object to keep me in the world. But these have me in another. I like it. This was a very good gift. It makes me wonder what sort of power in a totem comes from the person who discovers it, and how that is passed on.

The story my brother wrote had me as a witch who could turn to sand and grass and sit by the side of the sea until cities were built atop my head and that was very kind of him. I am completely human but when I write I do feel like an old sea witch. Sometimes I think I have to be. I am not strong enough as a human to make new worlds.

I drew a map the other day and when I finished I wanted so badly to draw what was happening in every room of every building, and then became exhausted by the very thought.

Happy New Year.

Writing Process Blog Tour for 8/20/14!

I was tagged by Tamara Kaye Sellman to participate in a blog tour that asks four questions about the writing process Tamara had some great answers last week involving magical realism and the necessity for today’s writers to go against conventional advice for the writers of yesterday, and next week I’ve tagged Michelle Kilmer, author of When the Dead and the upcoming Last Night While You Were Sleeping, and Ripley Patton, author of the PSS chronicles to give their answers. I’m looking forward to reading them both! Today it is my turn. Let’s go!

1) What are you working on?

I just finished the second draft of a novel and I am working really hard on not flipping out and hiding under a table where I’ll likely scratch into the walls all of the worst possible things I imagine my beta readers could say about it with a pen knife and ultimately throw the manuscript into a volcano. I’m one of those writers, the “nothing will ever be good enough” sort of writers, but I’ve come to a place where I know if I can just sit tight in this storm of bad-feelings a week will pass, I’ll read through the book, and decide “this aint all bad, I can probably work with this.”

This is the second novel I’ve written, but it’s the first I want read, so the standards are pretty dang high. It’s way different from the short stories I’ve done, which I still revise until the moment revision becomes “put the comma in, take that same comma out… maybe put the comma in again?” and that’s when I know I finished the story three months ago. I’m slowly learning I can’t revise the novel that way, I just don’t have the stomach for it. I suppose what I’m really working on is distraction. I’m finding small stories to fiddle with in the interim, and I’m making things with my hands. Hands are good distractions. I wrote six word biographies for the main characters in the novel to help siphon off some of these nerves, and I just did a self portrait in sharpie and cut paper because sometimes writers need to get out of the words for a bit, and sit, and find some calm before we ruin a project with too much fussing.

There’s an episode of Metalocalypse in which the lead singer of Dethclock is staring at the final cut of their latest album, and everyone behind him is saying “Nathan… don’t do it…” and then he just pushes a button and erases everything. I know exactly what that’s like. Nathan just needed to give it a week. I vow not to touch my manuscript for a week (okay I’ll read it but not edit… I’m putting it down, I swear.)

2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?

I think I write horror. The novel is about monsters and urban legends, and I’ve found common themes of insects, three eyed people, and madness in my short stories, so what I write tends to fit within some vein of horror. That being said, I am a genuinely cheery person, and so much of what I write comes from a place of love, which I think is reflected in the stories I tell. It’s a very cheerful horror. Sometimes it feels like I come from a place of naiveté. I am young, yet, for a writer. Right now I am struggling with the disparity between the world I live in and the world reflected in what I write. There is so much evil out there that it feels comical for a fairy tale witch to be the greatest antagonist in the world of my novel, but I have to remember that a story is not the world. It never can be. Jose Saramago got around this by cutting off the outside world at the borders of his unnamed country, Milan Kundera acknowledged fiction’s shortcomings within his novels by writing openly of their fictitious nature, and Mike Carey in the Unwritten comics named this the negative space in the story; that space where the story stops short and in order to work cohesively cannot acknowledge the vastness of the world, but must remain focused on the small world it has built for itself. The Unwritten is chock full of brilliant breakdowns of the way we read and write, all in a fantastic story to boot. It’s on the “writer’s reference” shelf in my personal library. I organize my books like Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

I carried myself off there for a wee bit. But that minor turn toward structure and influence is not altogether off topic, they are what make me different. I would not call what I do “meta fiction,” but while I write stories that often turn horrific, I focus less on being scary and more on the structure of a piece, what is left in and out, and that structure is genre-less. I also read a lot of comic books. And children’s books, and magical realism, and yes, horror. All of which inform the way I write.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Wow that’s tough. I have a hard time writing about myself (don’t let the blog fool you). And talking to people. I think a lot of writers (especially fiction writers) have this problem. I’m not saying that I write because the only conversation I want to strike up is a monologue about spiders, but I think all artists are looking to communicate something that cannot be simply said in conversation. Writing is the medium I’ve chosen to communicate those things I can’t say about love and madness and fear. Fear particularly (I’ve been working with that a lot in the novel) is such an insidious concept that to speak openly about it degrades any arguments that touch it. Better to construct a life that is so entrenched in fear, and watch how he lives when everything around him runs with its sap, and let that act as a method for understanding what fear does to a person who cannot control it.

Stories are things I can make that are immersive, they demand full attention, and unlike movies which provide everything from story to visuals to music, they involve the participation of the reader. Language is a give and take thing, I can say “Isabel let herself fall back into the Leviathan, and drew her strength from its ancient wisdom” and how you see that happening is what you, reader, bring to the story. It is dependent upon how you see Leviathan as an abstract concept, what sort of person you envision an Isabel… you get the idea. It would have more meaning if more words were built around it, a narrower focus, that is what writing does, but I don’t have space here. It’s why when we speak of fiction we often speak in metaphors. Naming unnameable concepts.

I think video games are the one other artistic medium that demands nearly the same type of involvement from its participants, but video games are held hostage by technology, and their stories are often diffused through a production team. I collaborate like Edward Gorey; open to collaboration, but you might not see me for weeks while I “collaborate.” I prefer language as a technology for story telling, anyway. It’s incredibly advanced, and it only gets better as we discover new concepts and ways to speak of them. I, for one, welcome “hot mess” as an addition to the dictionary. It probably won’t make it into any of my short stories anytime soon, but it does detail a specific idea, and I like knowing “hot mess” is there if I need it.

4) How does your writing process work?

I usually begin with a character, and some idea of a problem she’s having. I like to write off of prompts for anthologies, because blank pages are terrible, so those prompts are thrown into the stew. I’ll jot down a couple of random sentences on a blank document, perhaps a line or two of dialogue, and sometimes if I’m having a really hard time beginning the story, I will play around with rhyming couplets because they make me smile. Rhymes loosen the brain, they keep me from worrying about perfection in a first draft.

Then I do the dishes. (Or something to distract my hands.) While my hands are someplace inconvenient, the right first sentence comes into my head, and I go back to the computer and write it down, then write furiously, attempting to throw everything on the page, spitting words against the wall until I’ve discovered the silhouette of what I really mean to say and I do not edit while I write because that kills it. That’s a lie, I do edit, sometimes, but I try really hard not to. At the end of the first draft which always takes more time than I have, (it’s broken by work, and sleep, and making dinner and spending time with my patient husband,) I try to give it a couple days before I edit for real, and in this time I doodle characters, or knit. Sometimes if I’ve really enjoyed an object in the story I will try to make it. I love making things with my hands, and it gives some sense of accomplishment so I don’t go back to the computer stuck in the mire of bad-feelings, having convinced myself that the story is pointless. And once enough time has passed, I go back to the first draft and make sure that the fury I conjured out of couplets and dishwater is cohesive, and that the words sound right together. Sometimes writing this way gives the correct feeling to the story right away, but I more often need to wrangle it back from the brink and turn the phrases straight so they better reflect the story they are telling.

This fugue state writing is the only way I can get my editing brain to shut up long enough to finish a first draft. I think I might be in the minority for writers, but I love to edit fiction. I think that’s where the magic actually takes place. First drafts are gathering ether, raw power for a spell, and editing is putting that into place, directing it so that it can affect another person the same way the ether has affected you. Writing is magic. Oh! Oh, that’s my answer to number three! The process ends in a spell, and then someone else reads it, and then we share that tiny world, but privately, in our own time. Magic!

Be sure to tune in to and next week for their answers to these same questions!

Michelle Kilmer is a lover of the macabre, especially zombies. She is a frequent zombie walker and can be found, with her twin sister, in “full gore” at many horror-related events. Having grown impatient for the zombie apocalypse she decided to bring one to her doorstep in When the Dead… her first novel. With the positive feedback on When the Dead, she has continued to write. In 2013 she co-wrote a short story collection with her twin sister. Her third book, a zombie YA novel is due out in May 2014.

Ripley Patton lives in Portland, Oregon with one cat, two teenagers, and a man who wants to live on a boat. She is an award-winning short story writer and author of The PSS Chronicles, a young adult paranormal thriller series. Ripley doesn’t smoke, or drink, or cuss as much as her characters. Her only real vices are writing, eating M&Ms, and watching reality television.

That’s Horrible.

My family is very supportive of my writing. They share it with everyone, which is pretty awesome even when a little embarrassing, because my dad’s dentist will ask how the writing career is coming along. So, while explaining that it was coming along nicely, my dad got to talking about Flies in the Ink with the dental assistant. He tried to describe it for her, and of course came to the point where there’s a room wall-papered in human skin. She said “That’s horrible!” and my dad tried to tell her “No, but, it isn’t done like, in a bad way…”

It was about as successful as when I tried to say “Well at least the Kennedy assassination wasn’t one of the really depressing ones…” in my mind thinking of how terribly drawn out poor Garfield’s death was in comparison with the quick death that Kennedy experienced, but coming off like an utter psychopath to the man buying the Bill O’Reilly book. Some things just can’t be said. There are no good rooms wall-papered in human skin.

I understand what he was trying to say. I write horror, but it doesn’t feel like horror. I don’t ever want to upset anyone. I just really can’t help it. I start to write about sisters and one of them ends up with spiders crawling out of her eyes. No, but, not like in a bad spiders-crawling-from-eyes way.

I always loved the Addams Family because they were never treated as scary monsters, and despite the ookie theme song they were the heroes of their story; everyone outside their gloriously crumbly mansion was a weirdo. I wanted to grow up to be Morticia Addams. (Who am I kidding? I still want that. Right now I’m resting solidly on “Wednesday dropped out of college and did something disgraceful to divorce herself from that sweet Addams fortune, but she met a guy so it all works out, really.”)

I arrive at horror in a round about manner, arriving there with a bit of creepy humor, and a good deal of time spent on the nature of magic… It can be terrible when I’m trying to find suitable markets for my writing, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Well, scratch that, I couldn’t have it: I’m too squeamish to go full gore. And I have long held out on trying to place myself in a genre (and that includes the ‘lit’ genre, by the by), even though I’ve always sort of known I fit better there than anywhere else. I’m done with that. I’m throwing my lot in, and saying I write horror. It isn’t any more frightening or damning in the publishing world to give oneself a genre than it is to give oneself a gender.

Which is to say, yes I’m very frightened of being pigeonholed. I still get cold sweats when I write my byline as Megan rather than M. L.* because I know certain things are expected of women writers and I have to develop some very sharp elbows if I’m to escape those expectations. Same with claiming a genre. But a name can be a flag just as well as it can be a mask. If I wear Megan proudly, and fight for her with all my strongest prose, perhaps she can one day symbolize all that I want to be. Funny, strong, horrible, but not like, in a bad way.

I want to write horror on my own terms. And I want to write it as a woman. Cross my heart and pray to Saint Shirley Jackson I haven’t made a terrible mistake.

*m. l. is the byline for this blog because the lowercase letters are relaxing, and help to encourage the informal tone I try to use here.