Six (Six Six)Super Spookytime Suggestions!

Hey all! Decided to change things up a little, since next week I’ll (hopefully) be cranking out astronomical word counts for the start of NaNoWriMo. Until then, seeing as how it’s the las week of October, I’d be remiss if I didn’t toss out some horror recommendations if you’re not sure what to watch to keep you in the scary spirit. I’m listing the poster/thumbnail , with a very brief review underneath. I consider these all to be worth your time, but I’ve organized them from least favorite to favorite. Here we go:

The Conjuring 3: The Devil Made Me Do It (HBO Max)

You pretty much know what you’re getting with The Conjuring movies by now, so you probably already know if you’ll like this one or not. Kudos to the writers for shaking up the formula a little bit, as this one earns my favorite critique: “It’s fine.”

Halloween Kills (Theaters/Peacock)

Another where you pretty much know what to expect going in, the biggest variable in a lot of the Halloween movies is whether or not they’ll cut the mustard for horror fans. Again, this movie is fine. There was a lot of dialogue that I found downright atrocious, but the action and gore made up for that in the long run.

Censor (Hulu)

A very solid and very original horror film out of the UK about a film censor who starts to lose her grip on reality (or does she?). It’s short, it will mess with your head, and it has an overall look/style that makes it stand out. Can’t wait to see what the folks behind this one do next.

Saint Maud (Hulu)

Another striking film debut about someone questioning reality, Saint Maud walks the line between horror and slow burn psychological thriller, but I’m not concerned with splitting hairs—it’s close enough for me. Another film that’s very short, what I liked most about it is the way it built tension and unease, and a final scene I absolutely adored.

Midnight Mass (Netflix)

You’ve probably heard about this one, the third Netflix limited series from the apparent reigning champion of horror right now, Mike Flanagan. His take on The Haunting of Hill House was nearly a masterpiece as far as I was concerned, but The Haunting of Bly Manor didn’t really do it for me. So where does Midnight Mass stand? I’d put it between the two, closer to Hill House. It meanders and drags in places, but I’d say it mostly lives up to the hype.

30 Coins [30 Monedas] (HBO Max)

30 Coins has been out for a while, but I’m just getting around to watching it now and whoa…this show is something. I’m actually only three episodes in, but that’s enough to know that (barring a truly dismal ending) this show is head and shoulders above much of the horror out right now. A tale about a mysterious priest, Judas, and a collection of coins (guess how many?) that could end Christianity. The first episode alone got three genuine “WTF”s from me, which is quite a special achievement.

There you have it, hopefully something to keep you spooked for the remainder of the month. Be safe, have fun, and Happy Halloween!

Sonder, or: Everyone Has a Story

NaNoWriMo in T minus 10 days and counting…those of you participating, are you ready? Personally, I’m *almost* right where I want to be on November 1st. I want to be prepared, but not too prepared. I like having a little wiggle room in my plot and my outline, because one thing a lot of you may already know: your characters can surprise you. Your story may take on twists and turns you never thought about until you sit down and get into the nitty gritty.

Speaking of characters, there’s a word I discovered a few years ago. It’s one of my favorite words: sonder.

sonder

n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

Cool, right? And do you see the correlation to characters? I hope it’s clear, but if it’s not it basically boils down to this: characters are people (they should be, anyway). They have backstories, motives, flaws, etc. that make them relatable, and relatable characters are what it’s all about!

Image of just Because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.
The first quote about character I could think of.

I’ve seen other writers suggest doing things like interviewing their characters to learn more about them, but that always seemed…a little corny to me, I guess, although I wouldn’t be surprised if I still try it someday. But the other day I stumbled upon a different suggestion that ties into the notion of sonder—switch protagonists. It makes you look at your story from a little different angle, and makes you think about other characters that you may have been neglecting when it comes to fleshing them out and making them more interesting. I usually try to be thorough when it comes to fleshing out my antagonists, but I’ll admit I can forget about side characters sometimes.

The suggestion to switch protagonists comes from Scott Myers’s great Go Into the Story column on The Blacklist website. (Side note: do you all look to screenwriting resources for writing tips, too? Granted, the format is different, but most of the storytelling tips apply to novelists and writers of short stories as well. Myers’s column if a treasure trove of helpful advice, and I can’t recommend the YouTube channel Lessons from the Screenplay highly enough. Also almost any book on screenwriting by Syd Field). So, give it a shot, let me know what you think!

I’m also open to suggestions, what tricks to you have for making sure your characters are lifelike, three dimensional people that readers can relate to?

Writing Residencies: Who’s Done Them?

So here we are, three and a half weeks until November and the kickoff to NaNoWriMo. If you’re participating, are you ready? If it were beginning tomorrow I’d be in okay shape to start on my project, but I’m really trying to get everything laid out storywise so that when the time comes I can just write (and write and write and write).

Thinking about how much writing I hope to be doing in November got me thinking about something I had investigated a little at one point in time, but forgot about—writing residencies. As a writer with far too little time to dedicate to writing (as I assume many of you are, as well), writing residencies sound almost too good to be true. You expect me to believe that, if selected, I can go off to a (usually) remote location, surrounded by other writers/artists, and I’m expected to just…write? Like, that’s it? What every writer dreams of? What’s the catch?

This looks beautiful and tranquil, but there is a 100% chance I would send my laptop plummeting to the ground below.

Well, as I (a complete novice to the world of residencies) see it, there are two “catches”. First, the odds do not seem to be in your (or my) favor. It’s unclear just how many applications these organizations get for residency, but in many cases they only accept one to two dozen writers a year for their programs. That being said, you’ll never get into the residency you don’t apply for, right?

Second, and what I consider to be a slightly larger issue, is money. Most (though not all) residency programs have an application fee—although most that I’ve researched are fairly modest, in the $20-40 range. *Game show announcer voice* BUT THAT’S NOT ALL! There are other costs to consider as well. For example, travel. Almost none of the programs cover travel to their location. So, for example, if you live in, say, California, and get accepted into a residency in Florida…then it’s time to flex those Hotwire muscles. Other things to consider include: feeding yourself while you’re there, how you’ll get around should you want to leave the grounds, and, in some cases, the nightly fee. That’s right, some residencies charge nightly just like a hotel or Airbnb. And that’s all assuming you’re able to get time off work (paid vacation time, if you’re lucky), as residencies vary from 1-2 weeks up to a few months.

However—and I cannot stress this enough—every residency program is different. YOU HAVE TO DO YOUR RESEARCH! Some cover meals, but not travel. Some give you a stipend for food and expenses for the duration of your stay. Some have no application fee. Some even give you access to a car so you can see the sights while you’re there! It’s a lot like finding a publisher or an agent: you just have to find the one(s) that are the right fit for you. But if you find one that fits your life, and you get accepted … man, oh man, does it ever seem like utopia.

The Porches Retreat, in rural Virginia.

The vast majority of information I’m giving you was found in this article from The Write Life. It’s over a year old, but the links are still good. You’ll just have to visit the sites for their most updated information. I myself have their list narrowed down to about 10 or so that make sense for me. Most of them don’t accept applications again until early next year, but there are a couple coming up soon, so I have to get cracking! As for you all, have any of you ever been accepted into a residency program? Was it everything you’d hoped it would be?

Calling All Worldbuilders

I don’t know how some of you do it. Worldbuilding is really something else, and I’m having a little trouble with it.

I’m sitting here, “working” on one of my projects (staring at the screen and thinking a lot) before NaNoWriMo is upon us, and it’s my first story that requires any real worldbuilding. All of my previous work has been pretty deeply rooted in the real world, with maybe a couple of otherworldly exceptions. I had foolishly thought worldbuilding would never be something I’d have to think about much because fantasy and sci-fi are not really in my writing wheelhouse.

While based in the real world, this story involves reapers. Not The Grim Reaper, per se, but more like a global network of reapers. Figuring out how they operate, where they go and why, what they look like and why, etc. has got me a little stymied. With the rough draft I kept it pretty simple, but now as I try to tighten everything down and ensure everything makes sense, I realize I have some unanswered questions to…well, to answer.

* I did not build this world

Due to circumstances partially beyond my control, I’ve found myself moving 4 times in the last 5 years. As you can imagine, things have a way of getting shuffled around. As such, I’m going to have to go on a hunting expedition through my garage and basement for a buried treasure: Wonderbook by Jeff VanderMeer (author of the Southern Reach trilogy—the first of which, Annihilation, was adapted into a film). I’ve written about my love of this writer’s guide to “creating imaginative fiction” before, as it’s far more engrossing than your typical all-text book. Full of wonderful, fantastical illustrations and more advice than you can shake a stick at (from a who’s who of authors to boot), Wonderbook is an indispensible resource for nearly any writer. As it happens, it’s also the only book I own (other than novels) that can help me understand how to build my little reaper-infested world for my own book.

If you don’t own it, buy it

In the meantime, however, while I look for my buried treasure, if you have experience worldbuilding I’d love to know how you got good at it. Was it just by doing, or did you read anything (instructional, novels, or otherwise) that helped you figure out what to do?

NaNoWriMo, Who’s With Me?

I’ve got a secret.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo. I did it in spirit one year, but it wasn’t “official”. But first, let’s back up a step—just what the heck is NanoWrimo, anyway?

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a writer. As such, you may already know, but if you don’t, NanoWriMo is the official shorthand for National Novel Writing Month, which lasts through the month of November. In fact, if you listen closely on the morning of November 1st, you’ll be able to hear the pouring of coffee, the uncapping of pens, and the clacking of keyboards all across the country.

Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

The goal of NaNoWriMo is, as you may have guessed, is to help you write a novel in a month. More specifically, 50,000 words in 30 days. That breaks down to 1,666 words a day (if, of course, you write every day). Does that sound like a lot? I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s not. Provided, that is, that you go into it at least somewhat prepared. Which is why I’m blogging about it six weeks in advance—in this one instance, at least, there IS a method to my madness.

Now, don’t get me wrong—you can complete NaNoWriMo with little to no preparation. There’s a good chance, however, that what you’ll be left with on December 1st is a mountain of unintelligible garbage THAT YOU WILL THEN HAVE TO EDIT.

As for me personally, I’ve decided to give NaNoWriMo an honest shot this year because between you and me and the fencepost, I need a shot in the arm and a kick in the butt. I’ve written painfully little in the past year, but have ideas and partially written projects coming out the wazoo. I feel like I’ve lost my mojo, and am more than willing to try NaNoWriMo to get it back. I reviewed my WIP’s and settled on the one I think is the best bet for me: A supernatural horror/thriller that will (potentially, hopefully) be the first in a series. I outlined the beats of the story and even started a rough draft, but something just wasn’t…right. But now, I have a month and a half to make sure my plot is tight and everything is ready for me to sit down on November 1 and just…write. Naturally, it’ll still have to be edited (no amount of planning/outlining can eliminate that), but hopefully it won’t be the arduous task it could be.

Last Chance! Women In Media Late Entries Close Today! - B&T

So, what do you do if you decide to give it a shot? Well, NaNoWriMo has a website where you can sign up—for free—to get pep talks, resources if you get stuck, a nifty project tracker, find buddies, etc. that help thousands of writers get through the month successfully. Or, if you’re more the loner type, you could…well you could just write. Start the 1st and write your 1,666 words a day (more some days, less others) and find yourself putting the finishing touches on a novel over Thanksgiving weekend.

Those of you who have participated, what was your experience like with NaNoWriMo? Do it every year, or did it once and never again? Whether you use the official website or toil away in solitude—hell, even if you don’t finish the 50,000 words in 30 days, you’re still a writer. Just keep writing.

Good luck!

You Think You Know Anxiety? Get Blurbs for Your Book

A couple of posts ago, I casually declared that the rewrites/edits for my upcoming novel would be done “in the next couple weeks!”

Fool. Moron. Idiot. Buffoon.

Finishing those edits took longer than I anticipated (luckily my editor is beyond patient and told me to take my time, so as to ensure quality), but they are being turned in this week. Yay! There will still be more edits to come I’m sure, but they will be small things—typos, the errant comma, etc. That means that it’s time to look ahead. We have cover design, marketing, and one thing that I’ve been encouraged to pursue sooner rather than later: Blurbs.

You probably already know, but for those who don’t, blurbs are the little quotes praising your book (or sometimes just you) coming from either your contemporaries, a prestigious reviewer (The New York Times, for example), or other such luminaries. We’ve all seen them (although whether we actually read them is another story):

“The greatest story about competitive duck racing ever told.” — The New Yorker

“A tale of lovelorn Postmates drivers that will have you gasping at the final page!” —Reader’s Digest

Those are obviously fake, but there is one I’ve always remembered: “I’ve seen the future of horror; his name is Clive Barker.” —Stephen King

I don’t have to tell you the kind of weight a quote like that carries from Uncle Stevie. Clive Barker has even spoken about how that simple blurb changed his life completely. So all I have to do is go on Twitter and ask Mr. King nicely for a blurb, and I’m all set!

No, of course not. But the process of getting blurbs can seem almost as ridiculous. To a large degree, it amounts to this: contact authors you (hopefully) know, and that have some relevance to your genre, and ask politely. What if you don’t know any authors to ask? Good luck. That’s the importance of networking, people!

As for me, I don’t know how it’s going to go. I’ve got a list of about 10 authors I’m friends with on Facebook that I plan to ask. Of those, I’m almost certain 3 or 4 will say no (but I’m asking anyway because I’m big fans of theirs). Another 2 or 3 are somewhat likely to say yes. The others, well…I just don’t know. There are two that I would be floored to get blurbs from, both because I hold them in high regard, and they are well known in the world of dark fiction. I’ll keep you posted!

What about you, do you read blurbs? Do they make you more or less likely to give a book a shot?

The Other One: The Long, Strange Trip of Bob Weir [Netflix, 2014]

One of my favorite things is discovering a band that is already established, and you get to immerse yourself in their entire catalog, seeing the choices they made from one album to the next, etc. It’s been a while since there’s been a band I dove headlong into like that, but here I am with a band that can be somewhat divisive, but also a band you’ve certainly heard of: Grateful Dead.

I can’t honestly say I ever disliked the Grateful Dead, I just dismissed them as a drug band for hippies and never really gave them a chance. I knew Truckin’ and Casey Jones from the radio growing up, and that was about it. Then, it was with great surprise that I found out that my first wife’s favorite band was, in fact, the Dead. I listened to them a little, and realized they had some pretty good songs, but overall they just didn’t quite do it for me. To make a long story short, their music chipped away at me over the years, and now I’m in the middle of a Grateful Dead-fueled obsession. I’ve also decided to learn more about the guitarist who isn’t Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir. So when I found out there was a documentary on Netflix about Weir, I was all over it.

Talk about an interesting life! Weir recounts the early days, hanging out at the local music shop as a teenager and meeting Jerry Garcia, who at the time was known around town as sort of a hotshot banjo player. They hit it off immediately and formed a band. After a couple of evolutionary steps, they settled on the name Grateful Dead and started to develop a psychedelic rock sound, a change of pace from the more folksy jug band they initially started.

The film walks through The Dead’s career in fairly broad strokes, as it is really for the more casual fan, or the non-fan who knows nothing about the band. And while this is certainly not a “warts and all” documentary, they do address things that could’ve been left unspoken: the copious amounts of drugs they took in the early days; Weir’s voracious sexual appetite on the road (and how much the rest of the band appreciated him attracting women to the group); the seeming disdain Weir had for some of the fans they amassed in the late 80s after their song Touch of Grey made it onto the charts; and Garcia’s ailing health due to morbid obesity and heroin use. In fact, on that last topic, the film grows unexpectedly sad—seeing fans mourn Garcia’s death, one of Jerry’s daughters who clearly still misses her dad, and Weir himself, who said after a brief mourning period he went back out on the road with his band Ratdog, in part because if Garcia found out he was moping around at home and not out playing music, “he’d be furious.”

The film does end on a heartwarming note, however, as the adopted Weir locates his biological parents and forms a friendship with his father. I’m quite the sucker for music documentaries, so it would go without saying that I enjoyed The Other One, but as an ever-emerging Deadhead, it was a nice way to get a brief history of a band that was once described as, “not the best at what they do, but they’re the only ones who do what they do.”

What’s the Big Idea?

A quick aside before I get to the topic at hand: It’s cold, y’all. I’m aware that the majority of the country is facing unprecedented low temperatures this week, so it’s not like I’m telling you something you don’t already know, but just damn. As I sit typing this, it’s -14° outside with a wind chill of -24°. Even though I’ve lived in the Midwest over a decade, I’m a born-and-bred Southern Californian, I’m not equipped to handle weather this cold! But seriously, if your teeth are chattering too, hang in there.

A while back I had an idea. I either woke up with it, or had it as I was falling asleep, I can’t remember which. But as soon as it struck me, I thought “Wow, that’s either really good or total garbage.” I was consumed with this idea for at least two weeks, researching it, thinking it through, the like. It’s now sitting on deck as my next new rough draft once I finish edits on my novel (which I’m hoping to be in the next week or two, finally!). Still, there’s a chance it’ll be a stinker. So you can imagine how much encouragement I found in the following exchange between two writers on Twitter:

I’ve had some wild ideas before, or at least I thought they were wild, but when you’re gaining your footing as a writer and building your confidence, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s good and what’s not. But now I’ve been writing for longer than I care to admit (considering the amount of success I’ve had), and I feel like I know a good idea when I hear it. So when I thought of this story, I thought maybe I had fallen off the deep end (seriously, this idea will prove me to be either a genius or an idiot). Seeing that more established authors have the same doubts was pretty comforting.

So that got me to wondering: how many of you have had ideas like that? Where you wonder if it’s worth pursuing, but if it is, it could be amazing? Have you ever disregarded an idea because you thought it was just too ridiculous? If so, what was it? One thing I’ve learned is that there’s a crowd out there for pretty much everything. If an idea strikes me and I can’t stop thinking about it (as was the case with this new Great Idea), I have to pursue it or it will eat at me from the inside. And without getting off on a tangent, I’m already making up for lost time as it is, I’m not going to worry too much about silly little things like “what if no one reads it?”. To quote Frank Reynolds from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, “I don’t know how many years on this Earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it.”

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet [Apple TV+, 2020]

Here we go again, so let me say: I apologize to anyone who doesn’t have Apple TV+, for talking about a show you can’t watch. I did it a while back with the disarming optimism of Ted Lasso, and I’m back to talk about a different comedy with at least one familiar face: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet.

Created by Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day (both of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and Megan Ganz (brilliant writer for more great comedies than I can list), Mythic Quest stars McElhenney as Ian Grimm (pronounced “eye-an”), the creative visionary behind the titular online role playing game and his staff of outcasts and oddballs as they prepare to launch an expansion to the game, called Raven’s Banquet. So it’s a quirky workplace comedy, and a pretty good one, but it shows signs of becoming so much more.

Now, I’ll admit that I think the show was really finding its footing as it went along, and its second season could be absolutely hilarious. This show has some amazing characters with a ton of potential for big laughs. Highlights from the first season include Sue, the perpetually happy head of Customer Relations, who is practically locked in her basement office and read the thousands of angry emails sent to the company every day, and Jo, the Midwestern-bred conservative who is hired as an assistant to Executive Producer David, but in actuality lives and breathes to serve Ian, to an alarming degree.

But like I said, there are glimpses of what this show can grow to be, and that’s why I finished the season. Two glimpses in particular showed me how this show might hit that sweet spot of being a great comedy with heart and feeling, too.

The first is Episode Five, a standalone episode that features none of the regular cast. Titled A Dark Quiet Death, the episode follows the life cycle of a popular ’90s video game, and along with it the life cycle of its creators’ relationship. It has its lightly comic moments but it’s not a comedic episode by any stretch. It’s actually a touching, rather sad piece of storytelling.

The second is a bonus episode that came out after the season finale, once the pandemic had taken hold of the country. While the majority of the episode is fairly clever and funny, filled with Zoom-based humor, it ends with a reveal that shows that two of its characters are far more three dimensional than they seem.

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a pretty good show, but it has the potential to be really great, and that’s pretty exciting.

Hating What You Love

Netflix alert: There’s a highly entertaining limited series out now, called Pretend It’s a City. It features author/humorist Fran Lebowitz chatting with Martin Scorcese, giving her opinions on an array of topics. If you’re not familiar with her, Lebowitz is incredibly smart and almost unbelievably funny. The show is broken into half hour episodes so it’s easy to digest, though it’s equally easy to binge if you choose.

Of special interest to fellow artists, I would recommend Episode Two, titled ‘Cultural Affairs’. In it, Fran espouses about art, music, talent, and has an interesting conversation with Spike Lee about the difference between an athlete and an artist. One part especially rang true for me, however—when she mentions her disdain for the very thing that gave her the career she’s had: writing.

“I loved to write, until the very first time I got an assignment to write for money. And then I hated to write.”

“I’ve only known one really good writer in my life who loved to write. Most people who love to write are horrible writers.”

I can’t speak to the first part, as I’ve never actually had a paid writing assignment. That second quote though…that hits home. Because as much as I love writing, and for all the time I spend poring over the written word, I actually kind of hate it. I’ve never known any other artform that artists seem to love and hate in equal measure. It’s not just me, either. Plenty of writers have spoken about how they loathe what they love. While watching Pretend It’s a City, I laughed at Lebowitz’s quote and told my wife how true it was, so she asked the question: “Then why do you do it?”

I had to think for a second, but this is what I came up with: It’s almost like a compulsion. I have these stories in my head that I have to get out, because to keep them solely in my head seems kind of pointless. I suppose there may be an odd sense of narcissism in believing they’re good enough that other people would care enough to read them, but I have to get them out. I quit writing once for a few years, then realized I hadn’t felt complete since I stopped. Then about a year and a half or two years ago, I almost quit again. That was when I decided once and for all that I would spend the rest of my life writing stories. Whether they get published or not, I need them out of my head to make room for other things, like why I walked into the kitchen, or what errands I need to run when I get home from work.

My dearly departed friend Michael Louis Calvillo (check out his incredible books here) was one of the first people I heard describe writing like that. At the time, I couldn’t really relate. Now, however, I totally understand. It’s almost like an itch that needs scratched or you’ll go insane.

So, fellow writers…what about you? Do you love writing? Hate it? Both? If you hate it, why do you do it? Is it an itch you have to scratch?

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